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SALISBURY — Though he has been in the hearing-aid business for 45 years, Lee Wade says it never gets old — the moment his customers realize they are hearing things that long ago had faded away.

Elsewhere in Wade’s Beltone waiting room, wife Marie, daughters Lisa Thomas and Angela Melton and grandson Matthew Thomas are nodding their heads in agreement.

They have seen it daily, too, for many years.

“I liked the part of seeing faces smile, of seeing faces brighten by hearing things,” Lee Wade says, thinking back to his first customers and what has continued as the biggest payback in his profession.

“It was so rewarding to see people react to being able to hear and understand.”

A native of Danville, Va., Lee Wade worked in insurance for 11 years in Greensboro before one of the colleagues in his office left to take on a Beltone franchise.

He soon persuaded Wade to join him, starting in January 1969.

By 1974, Wade bought his own Beltone franchise in Salisbury and has been in business here ever since, with Marie running things as office manager.

“The beautiful part is, it never gets old,” Lee says. “I get up, and I’m ready to go to work.”

After growing up around the office and sometimes accompanying Wade on his visits to private homes or nursing care centers, daughters Lisa and Angela fell into the business easily.

In 1988, Lisa Wade Thomas began manning the family’s Beltone office in China Grove, even though she was close to finishing a two-year criminal justice degree at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College.

She has never regretted choosing a war against hearing loss over a fight against crime.

“I always loved it,” she says.

Lisa eventually moved to Spruce Pine because of her ex-husband’s job, and after determining the area had a need, she went into the hearing-aid business herself, independent of Beltone or other franchise companies.

This year, she’ll mark her 20th year in Spruce Pine and her 26th of working with hearing-loss customers overall.

Though she first started out as a dental assistant, Angela Wade Melton stepped into the family’s China Grove office in 1994 and hasn’t looked back.

Today, the China Grove Beltone office is located at 213 N. Main St., while the Salisbury location is 1921 W. Innes St., not far from Catawba College.

“I absolutely made the right choice,” Angela says. She works three days of the week in China Grove and two days in Salisbury.

Lee and Marie’s 33-year-old grandson, Matthew Thomas — Lisa’s son — had a bachelor’s degree in antebellum history and was preparing to go for a master’s when he joined his grandparents’ Beltone franchise in Salisbury six years ago.

“I was wanting to be a professor,” Matthew says, but the lure of the family business proved bigger than trying for tenure on a college campus.

Matthew learned all about the paperwork and office management side of things from Marie, then prepared for North Carolina’s tough certification and licensing test under the tutelage of his grandfather, mother and aunt.

He passed on the first try, and today Lee, Lisa, Angela and Matthew represent three generations of licensed hearing instrument specialists.

Together they account for almost 100 years of experience — 97, to be exact.

“The strength of family is what has built the business,” Angela Melton says. “I think it’s what has made us successful.”

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Lee Wade can’t help but marvel at how far technology and equipment have come over his years with Chicago-based Beltone. His industry has gone through significant transitions, which include analog, programmable, digital and wireless hearing aids.

Beltone consistently offers training to keep their franchise owners updated.

When Wade started out, it wasn’t unusual to test the homebound and make hearing-aid fittings over a kitchen table. But now all examinations and fittings are conducted in the office, except for special circumstances.

Today Wade specializes in an open-fit technology that, in the ear, is hardly noticeable and brings significant hearing improvements for people with high-frequency hearing loss.

The specialists take clients to a testing room, complete with a soundproof booth. There’s also a programming room, where hearing aids are connected to computer software and all digital adjustments are made via a keyboard.

The days of making adjustments to hearing aids with screwdrivers are mostly gone, except for servicing clients who still have those models.

The specialists can cast molds for hearing aids and earplugs and offer the full range of services, from testing, fitting, insurance work, maintenance and followups.

Keeping up with all the changes, “is a constant learning process for us,” Angela Melton says.

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The family speaks about their profession with a passion. Every person is different, and the hearing specialists have to be part psychiatrists and counselors, Lisa Thomas says.

They often meet people who are in denial about having any hearing loss, or those in depression because they can’t hear as well as they used to.

Doctors refer maybe half the clients, Lee Wade says. Wives, husbands and other relatives lead to many of the other referrals.

“They’re like our family,” Lisa Thomas says. “That’s why being local is so important, to know who you’re dealing with.”

They have many customers who have reached 100 years of age, including one woman who is 106 — all doing well with their hearing aids.

Hearing loss, the family members explain, doesn’t come only from growing older. There can be some hereditary factors or complications coming from medications. Other causes of hearing loss could be things such as hunting, being a soldier around heavy artillery, industrial noise, mowing without hearing protection and loud music coming through headsets and earphones.

Matthew Thomas says adapting to hearing aids is a process and, in effect, a retraining of the brain. Auditory deprivation has made the brain forget how to process certain sounds.

Part of working with new clients is setting realistic expectations, in the beginning especially, the specialists say.

When they receive their hearing aids for the first time, clients want to hear as they had before. For some people, that might occur, but for many others, “It doesn’t happen overnight,” Matthew says.

The hearing specialists forge a close working relationship with the customers and often make several adjustments as the client requires — on things such as tenor, bass, loud, soft and background noise.

“They’re hearing aids, not hearing cures,” Matthew adds of the approach that has to be taken.

“It’s vital to be fitted properly,” Lisa Thomas says.

Still, the improvements in hearing can be dramatic almost immediately.

“I’ve seen people have tears,” Angela says of the joy improved hearing brings, “and others ask, ‘Can I have a hug?’’ That’s when you really enjoy what you’re doing.”

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There’s no denying Lee and Marie have been the backbone to the family and the joy they all share in improving people’s quality of life.

The couple seldom talk about retiring. “We’ll ease out one of these days,” Lee predicts.

In their business, the family members say they have stressed putting the client first and giving him or her the best service possible. They call it the Wade tradition.

Lee, who has an identical twin brother in Durham, is past president of the Milford Hills Lions Club and still active in the Salisbury Lions.

He also has served a term on the Salisbury Planning Board and is a current member of the Salvation Army board.

Beltone sponsors the bingo games at Rufty-Holmes Senior Center.

“We’ve just always been involved with Rowan County and Salisbury,” Lee Wade says.

Is there anyone in the Wade family who needs a hearing aid himself, or herself?

Marie says she’s probably ready to be fitted, “if I could find someone to give me a hearing test,” she adds.

You can hear the family laughter for a mile.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@salisburypost.com.

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