Man Learns to Read at 92, Now An Author at 98

James Henry hid his illiteracy for nine decades.

ByABC News
December 13, 2011, 11:35 AM

Dec. 13, 2011— -- Clever tricks carried Jim Arruda Henry through 92 years of his life without even his closest family suspecting the career fisherman with a third grade education was illiterate.

"He would wait for someone else to order and say, 'That sounds good, I'll have that,'" Henry's granddaughter, Marlisa McLaughlin said. "Or if he had a bill, he'd just requestion the guy and say, 'So how much do I owe you?'"

Henry's late wife only learned his secret after he sent her to secretary's school so she could handle the family's bookkeeping.

But six years ago, at 92, the Mystic, Conn., man was pulled by two forces, dejection and inspiration, toward one goal: He wanted to learn how to read.

"His illiteracy cost him more despair than anyone can bargain at that age," McLaughlin said, adding: "He signed a document he could not read about where he was going to go live."

McLaughlin did not want to go into more detail about the painful situation that caused a lot of "hurt feelings and animosity" in the family, she said.

But through the hurt, Henry was also uplifted.

He heard about George Dawson, the son of slaves, who learned to read at 98 and wrote a book called "Life Is So Good" at the age of 101.

"I said if he can do it, I'm going to try. I can do it," Henry told ABC affiliate WTNH.

With his characteristic motivation, Henry started to learn.

Man Begins To Read At 92

"He sat at the kitchen table by himself and practiced his signature," McLaughlin said. "Then he moved on to the ABC's."

But the death of his wife put a damper on his drive, and Henry pushed the stack of children's books he was learning to read aside and didn't touch them for four years, his granddaughter said.

When he turned 96, he dove back into reading, meticulously looking up words he did not know in the dictionary. One word would sometimes take hours.

And with the help of his tutor, retired English teacher Mark Hogan, he began to write about what he knew: his life.

"He started remembering things and wanted to get them down," Hogan said.

He wrote about his youth in Portugal, his time as a professional boxer and the time he lost another fisherman who had fallen overboard.

And soon, Henry had a handwritten manuscript he called "In A Fisherman's Language."

Nearly 800 copies were sold during the first two weeks of the book's November release and one thousand more were printed soon after to keep up with a demand that has spanned from California to as far away as Greece.

The 98-year-old celebrity is stepping into even newer territory. He now has a Facebook account he's learning to navigate with the help of his granddaughter.

Producers have expressed interest in optioning the rights to his life story for a movie. The interest has been so high, McLaughlin said she just hired an agent to help handle all of the requests.

"Everyone has a story, and this one is so timely," she said. "It teaches that when you're down and out, never give up."