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The man who talks with his hands at Governor Hutchinson’s news conferences

Press Shop | 04.27.2020

Hands down, Eddie Schmeckenbecher talks more than anybody else at Governor Asa Hutchinson’s daily COVID-19 news conferences, including the Governor himself.

That’s because Eddie repeats the Governor’s every word, and he repeats every word of every other person the Governor invites to the lectern.

It’s the same thing every afternoon about 1:30: The Governor enters the Governor’s Conference Room from his office. Eddie, always sporting yet another tie from his now-statewide famous collection of neckwear, approaches the lectern from the other side.

The Governor steps to the lectern and faces the reporters who are seated at the table and the television cameras on tripods behind them. Eddie stops six feet to the Governor’s right and, likewise, faces the journalists.

As the Governor speaks, Eddie follows suit, word for word.

As Eddie speaks, you’ll notice right away that Eddie is that one of those guys who talks with his hands. Eddie can’t carry on a conversation without moving his hands. But that’s okay with the Governor, and it’s better than okay for the Deaf Arkansans who watch Governor Hutchinson’s updates.

Eddie Schmeckenbecher is Governor Hutchinson's interpreter, a task he has handled for more than two years. Deaf Arkansans have applauded the service and praised Eddie’s work.

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, they’ve seen a lot of Eddie. Now that the TV news broadcasters have been showing the press briefings live, thousands of people all over the state are watching Eddie talk.

He’s never put in as many hours for the Governor as he has since the Governor instituted his daily updates. Eddie has handled all but five of the briefings since March 11, even working Saturdays and Sundays. (Fellow interpreter Jonathan Walterhouse filled in when Eddie had to miss for family reasons.)

Eddie was in the conference room on February 28 for Governor Hutchinson’s first coronavirus news conference when he announced that Arkansas had no cases. Vice President Mike Pence, the Governor reported, had told him earlier in the day that the total in the United States was 60.

Eddie was there on March 11, the day Governor Hutchinson confirmed the state’s first presumptive positive case of COVID-19 and declared a public health emergency in Arkansas. Eddie was there March 12 when the Governor revealed the discovery of five more cases and announced that schools in four central Arkansas counties would close for two weeks.

Eddie was with the Governor for news conferences in Fayetteville and West Memphis. He was front and center with Governor Hutchinson at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock as he opened a historic special session of the 92nd General Assembly, held at the Jack Stephens Arena. The state representatives convened there so they could sit at least six feet apart. The Governor had called them into a special session so they could vote on the Governor’s requests to reallocate state funds to deal with economic impact of the pandemic.

Before coronavirus, the events Eddie interpreted weren't so grim. In January 2019, Eddie was out front of the Capitol for the Governor’s second inaugural address. He has signed news about economic development and the Governor’s computer coding initiative.

“Every time I interpret for the governor, it’s something different,” says Eddie, who first learned sign language at church as a high school sophomore and by his junior year, was signing for the pastor’s sermons.

Eddie’s fulltime job is as communications specialist at the Arkansas School for the Deaf. 

Eddie is one of sixty-five nationally certified interpreters in the Registry for Interpreters for the Deaf in Arkansas. Interpreters are called upon to do far more than sign for speeches and sermons. He often is entrusted with the most private details of a person’s life, from delivering bad news of a cancer diagnosis to news of a death. He has signed for deaf people who were getting a driver’s license. He accompanies people to appointments with dentists and doctors. He’s talked deaf clients through sessions with lawyers and mental-health counselors. He’s been present at closings for home-loans.

He interpreted for Mike Huckabee’s second inauguration and for Bill Clinton’s speech at the 50th anniversary of the Little Rock 9’s integration of Central High School.

An interpreter must be keen of ear and quick to understand the person who is speaking. Eddie never knows what the Governor or one of his guest experts is going to say until the words are out, which usually isn’t a problem. But then there are news conferences such as the one on March 23, 2020, when Arkansas Secretary of Health Dr. Nate Smith announced the closing of hair-trimming salons and tattoo parlors.  Out of the blue, Dr. Smith said this:

“The final thing that I wanted to address is the keen interest we’ve had amongst the public and some of our medical practitioners in chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine …”

Eddie had heard of those medicines as possible treatments for COVID, but he’d never had to say the words – with his mouth or with his fingers. He had to guess fast.

“I spelled it the best I could,” he said later. “When the governor says a new county or city or company, or introduces somebody, I just spell it the way I hear it.”

Even for seasoned interpreters, signing is hard work. Eddie is good for about an hour, he says, and then he starts to “slur” his words. For long events, Eddie partners up and swaps out every fifteen to twenty minutes.

Sign language is thirty percent fingers, and seventy-percent facial expression and body language. The sign for the word “understand,” for instance, is always the same. It’s his body language and face that change the meaning.

If he leans forward and furrows his eyebrows as he signs “understand,” he’s asking, “Do you understand?”

A nod of his head with the same hand sign means, “I understand,” and back-and-forth with his head says he doesn’t.

Eddie began working with Governor Hutchinson in December 2017, but folks really began to notice him as he appeared with the Governor every afternoon for the coronavirus briefings, which also aired on the local network affiliates. People began to ask questions about the expressive fellow.

“Eddie,” Governor Hutchinson said one day without warning as he and his interpreter took their places, “everybody wanted me to introduce you. Come over here and introduce yourself.”

Eddie stood behind the lectern, a little red of face. “My name is Eddie Schmeckenbecher,” he said, the words flying silently from his mouth and his fingers. “I’m interpreting for the governor today.”

“Eddie does a great job for us,” the Governor said, “and I want you to know, I’ve had some feedback from people who like your ties.”

An interpreter’s hands stay in a zone from chest level to the top of the head. Some words and phrases require Eddie to put his thumb to his forehead or to bump his lips with his fingers or fist.

One day, as Eddie was enthusiastically interpreting the Governor’s advice to sneeze into elbows and to keep hands away from eyes, nose, and mouth, an observer watching on YouTube wryly noted that Eddie wasn’t practicing what he and the Governor were preaching. On the live-chat function, the person typed: “Tell the interpreter to quit touching his face!”

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(Cover photo: Eddie Schmeckenbecher interprets for Governor Asa Hutchinson at a news conference at the Arkansas Department of Health. Top photo left: Eddie Schmeckenbecher interprets Governor Asa Hutchinson's announcement that he has created an Economic Recovery Task Force. Chairman Steuart Walton [right in photo] waits to address reporters. Second photo left:  Speaker of the House Matthew Shepherd greets Governor Asa Hutchinson as he arrives at Jack Stephens Center for opening of special session. Interpreter Eddie Schmeckenbecher stands behind the Governor. Top photo right: Dr. Nate Smith, Secretary of Health, provides daily COVID-19 updates. Third photo left: Eddie Schmeckenbecher's face has become familiar around the state as Little Rock's TV news stations have broadcast Governor Asa Hutchinson's daily press briefiings. Second photo right: Eddie Schmeckenbecher sits behind Governor Asa Hutchinson as the Governor waits to address the opening of the special session of the 92nd General Assembly at Jack Stephens Center on the campus of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.Third picture right: Governor Asa Hutchinson addresses members of 92nd General Assembly at the Jack Stephens Center, the second time in state history that legislators have met convened outside the capitol. Bottom picture right: Governor Asa Hutchinson invited Eddie Schmeckenbecher to introduce himself. "Everybody wanted me to introduce you," the Governor said.)

Eddie on TV

Here are two television stories about Eddie Scheckenbecher: 

KATV

FOX

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