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Don Shelby leaned across the table and began reciting Hamlet's legendary soliloquy from memory.

"To be, or not to be, that is the question."

The only potential audience on this February morning was a half-dozen other customers at French Meadow Cafe in Minneapolis, too buried in their laptops to realize that one of the most famous newscasters in Minnesota history was showing off some Shakespeare.

But it might have been one of the retired WCCO-TV anchor's most impressive performances in his more than 50 years of broadcasting.

Just seven months earlier, he had wondered if he'd ever be able to speak at all.

In July 2021, the former newsman was trimming trees at his daughter's house when she asked him a question. What came out of his mouth in response was pure gibberish. A little while later, he scribbled a note to his wife: "Take me to the hospital."

Upon his arrival at the hospital, doctors quickly figured out that he had had a series of strokes, more severe than the one that forced him to temporarily step away from the anchor desk 17 years earlier. The blockage of blood flow to the brain had numbed his tongue, making it impossible for him to articulate the simplest of phrases.

"The damage is healing, but slowly," he wrote in an e-mail to the Star Tribune, less than two weeks after being admitted for care. "I may or may not get back my speech in any recognizable way. I have canceled out six months of engagements. I have a load of speech therapy coming up. Can you give me two weeks to see if there is any improvement? My outlook won't change, but I need to see if there is any hope of getting back into the saddle."

Now, as he sipped on a coffee drink at the Lyn-Lake neighborhood cafe, bundled up in four layers of clothes, the 74-year-old looks like he could once again deliver the late-night news.

But the road to recovery hasn't been easy. Shelby basically had to train his tongue to work again, reciting many a Dr. Seuss passage and Robert Frost poems around the house, annoying his ever-patient wife, Barbara.

During that period, he had to step away from his podcast, delay plans to do a production of "Love Letters" with Nancy Nelson, the widow of WCCO anchor Bill Carlson. He also gave up a starring role in "The Life and Loves of Sinclair Lewis," a passion project he'd been working on for two years.

There was no guarantee that the exercises would work.

"Part of my self-therapy was getting OK with that," Shelby said as classical music played in the background. "I had to ask myself: 'Can I continue? Can I exist?' "

The challenge reminded Shelby of one of the most traumatic chapters of his childhood. Early in life, he suffered from a prominent lisp. No amount of therapy seemed to help.

Finally, after a particularly painful incident of bullying, the first-grader decided to tackle the problem on his own.

"I got so fed up with people laughing at me," he said. "I went into my room, looked in the mirror and started figuring out how to make the 's' sound. If you were to scan what my tongue was doing, it wasn't conventional. But I made it work."

After last year's strokes, Shelby relied heavily on a speech pathologist. As he shared details from those sessions, one gets the sense that the desire to impress her and the rest of the medical experts was just as motivating as the possibility of returning to documentary and stage projects.

He now believes that about 75% of his delivery has returned. He still struggles with differentiating "d" and "t" sounds. Sometimes he has to pause to give his brain extra time to figure out how to say the next word.

But he's comforted by the fact that his chances of future strokes have been greatly reduced. This past fall, doctors performed open-heart surgery that will make it harder for blood clots to reach his brain and cause further damage.

He also realizes that the situation could have been much worse.

"If my speech didn't improve one iota from where it's at now, I'd still be the luckiest man in the world," he said.