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Banker breaks through the barriers of deafness

D.C. Goutoufas, manager of downtown Wachovia Center, hasn't let his hearing loss diminish his career or his affinity for people.

By TAMARA EL-KHOURY
Published April 9, 2005


TAMPA - It's a slow day at the downtown Wachovia Center. The tellers have few customers and the streets of Tampa are clear of pedestrians. It must be the rain, says Davelis "D.C." Goutoufas, the center's manager.

Despite the slow traffic flow, Goutoufas is not lonely. The people who work in the building on 100 South Ashley Drive make sure they swing by to greet the stout man with small eyes and a big smile before taking the elevators to their offices. They face him and are sure to make eye contact before saying hello.

Goutoufas, 37, can't hear the steady pounding of the rain. He can't hear the MSNBC anchors on the office's television talk their financial jabber and he can't hear his colleagues and friends when they say, "hey, D.C.," and ask him how he is. Goutoufas is hearing impaired. He uses his eyes in a job that requires him to communicate with people throughout the day.

He stops an unfamiliar customer who is speaking with his head down, pointing at the debit card in his hand. Goutoufas taps his ear and motions for the young man to look up so Goutoufas can read his lips.

"Oh," the customer says and repeats his problem, this time with his head up.

Goutoufas doesn't remember the last sound he heard but he does remember waking up one day and asking his mother why he couldn't hear. He was 4. The doctor said excessive fluid buildup took his hearing.

His mother taught him and his older brother, Elias, thought to be deaf since birth, to lip-read by reading to them every night. She would sit next to them, pointing to each word as they would read her lips through a mirror and repeat after her.

Goutoufas grew up in South Tampa's tight-knit Greek community, where he is a lifelong member of St. John's Greek Orthodox Church. He and his wife, Katie, 34, and their 7-year-old daughter, Olivia, live in the house next door to the one in which he grew up. Every morning he and his wife walk Olivia to Dale Mabry Elementary, where her classmates are the children of his former classmates.

Goutoufas is quick to talk about his family - Olivia occasionally barges into his home office to declare "Daddy's Little Girl Time" - but takes long pauses before answering questions about himself.

His first date with his future wife, he says, was 12 years ago at an Italian restaurant in Tampa. He wasn't sure they would make it through dinner.

A not-so strolling violinist had planted himself right next to the couple, and instead of setting the mood, had killed Katie's ability to hear her date. He would ask open-ended questions like, "Where are you from?" She would answer, "Yes."

"I wanted to break the violin," she says.

Once they left the restaurant and went to the theater to see the movie The Firm, conversation flowed easily. They will celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary in May.

Katie Goutoufas says people who first learn of her husband's hearing impairment often ask, " "Does he speak?' I laugh and say they haven't met him yet."

Goutoufas was the first person who is deaf to graduate from the University of Tampa, where he learned sign language from an interpreter provided by the state. The fast-talking New Yorkers in his fraternity overwhelmed him at first, he said, but he learned to read their lips, too.

He began his career as a college freshman in the mail room of the now-defunct Barnett Bank. He has managed the Tampa offices of First National Bank and Bank of America.

Goutoufas' speech is forced but understandable. If someone doesn't understand a word, he will whip out his cell phone - which flips to a keyboard - and patiently type it out. He talks to everyone: the security guard at the bank, customers, the members of the exclusive Tampa Club where he has breakfast three times a week.

At the Tampa Club, he tries to sit by a window overlooking UT's campus and the property his grandfather once owned at the corner of Hillsborough River and Kennedy Boulevard. When the weather is clear, he can see the UT rowers practicing. Waiters shake his hand and say good morning.

Technology has helped to make his job easier, but he points out he was in banking long before the text messages, the e-mails and the video phone service that allows him to make phone calls via an interpreter. A sign on his branch manager station reads: "I am hearing impaired but can read lips and speak well. I will be happy to assist you."

He uses an interpreter only during meetings of Wachovia's financial center managers or in training and development classes.

"I knew that working the front lines with customers, managing a branch would be a bit challenging for me," Goutoufas says. "At the same time, I felt the reward will be remarkable."

His branch received two certificates from Wachovia in March. One was for Top Service Measurement in Loyalty in Central and Northern Hillsborough, where customer loyalty rose from 22 to 65 percent in 2004. The other is for Outstanding Performance in Deposit Growth of 14.36 percent in January.

Ryan Halvorsen, a financial specialist who works at the Wachovia Center, says Goutoufas is always asking employees how he can make their jobs better. "The irony is, he listens well," he says.

"Some people when they come in, they attack the person they are talking to," Halvorsen says. "He always comes in, "How can we help this person, serve them better?' - even if they just ripped off his head."

Goutoufas left his profession once to teach American Sign Language at the University of South Florida in Tampa. While he enjoyed teaching, he said, his heart was in banking and he returned after a year.

"I'm a people person," Goutoufas says. "Everyone should know their banker. We all know our doctor, lawyer, CPA . . . We all should have someone who can give sound advice on your financial needs."

[Last modified April 9, 2005, 07:10:29]


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