For years, Merridy Ayer was afraid the phone would ring at work and she would have to answer it. "Administration," she would have to say.

Snared on her lips, the word might come tentatively forth, sputtering like a car that won't quite start. And then the person on the other end of the line would know the awful truth: that Merridy Ayer stuttered.Ayer lived most of her life that way. In school she was afraid to raise her hand, although she almost always knew the answers. Simple situations - the kind where strangers in a circle are asked to say their names - would terrify her. She withdrew from social situations and soon she wasn't even sure she had a personality.

And then last summer, at age 65, Ayer read a "Dear Abby" column about a convention sponsored by the National Stuttering Project. In June, for the first time in her life, Ayer finally found herself among a roomful of other stutterers. For the first time she wasn't alone.

After 57 years, Ayer suddenly discovered that stutterers are bright people with a lot to offer, and that stuttering is nothing to be ashamed of.

"It's not illegal, it's not immoral and it's not fattening," says Ayer with a smile. "But stutterers carry this burden that it's something horrible."

Bouyed by her experience at the convention in Houston, Ayer has started a Utah chapter of the Stuttering Project. The support group meets the first and third Thursdays of each month from 7 to 9 p.m. in room 114 at Granite High School, 3305 S. 500 East. The next meeting is Nov. 17.

Estimates are that about one percent of the population stutters, which would mean at least 600 stutterers in the Salt Lake Valley. Ayer wants to reach them. "Our goal is to help people set aside their stuttering and become who they really are," she explains.

Part of each meeting is devoted to "sharing and unburdening." If they feel so inclined, members are also invited to speak about various topics in front of the group.

"We give a lot of positive feedback," she says.

At a recent meeting, Dr. Marvin Hanson, chairman of the University of Utah Department of Communication Disorders, explained to the group that stuttering has physiological rather than psychological causes.

Evidence indicates, Hanson said, that stuttering is a genetic and neurological disorder involving pathways in the brain that send faulty messages to a stutterer when he hears himself speak. Speech patterns for stuttering appear to remain in the brain, even though speech therapy can help a stutterer become more fluent.

Although many children begin their stuttering between the ages of 3 and 6, Ayer says she was the best reader in the class before her family moved from the U.S. to Cuba during the 1930s, when she was 7. When she returned to the States a year later she was a full-fledged stutterer.

Eventually the stuttering usually takes on secondary, psychological dimensions. Because stuttering is often the butt of jokes, stutterers try to hide their problem. "But trying to hide it makes it worse," says Ayer. "Your whole life becomes geared to not being laughed at. So you don't attempt anything."

Like other stutterers, she was offended by the recent movie "A Fish Called Wanda," in which one of the characters stuttered and was portrayed as neurotic, bumbling and a murderer.

In a letter distributed to moviegoers, the National Stuttering Project noted that "There is a way to laugh about stuttering (we laugh at ourselves the way you must do to stay mentally healthy), but that is humor that enriches us, not demeans."

With therapy, stutterers can learn to control their tense and hesitant speech. Told many years ago that adult stutters could not be helped, Ayer has finally - at age 65 - gotten into speech therapy and has learned to speak more slowly, to relax and to breathe out before saying difficult letters.

George Bush might still have trouble with the "L word," but Ayer has discovered that she can even say "liberal" now.

- For more information about the Utah chapter of the Stuttering Project, call Merridy Ayer at 266-5505 or Granite High School, 481-7163.