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March 7th, 2012
06:19 PM ET

A fisherman's tale about life without an education

Editor's note: In the Human Factor, we profile survivors who have overcome the odds. Confronting a life obstacle – injury, illness or other hardship – they tapped their inner strength and found resilience they didn't know they possessed. This week, we introduce you to a 98-year old lobster-boat captain from  Mystic, Connecticut, who had a secret for nearly 90 years.  He shares his story of learning to read in his 90's and then becoming an author. 

My name is James Arruda Henry. I go by the name of James Henry because I have been incognito for most of my life. They called my father Big Henry when I was young.

Back then, everybody had a nickname. We kids went by the name of Arruda until we were more or less called Henry all the time and the name just stuck.

I have also been incognito for most of my life because I was always hiding the fact that I couldn’t read or write.  My father was an alcoholic and really mean. He pulled me and my brother out of school when we were real small because he wanted us to work for him.

We had to do all kinds of jobs like picking up garbage and selling corn. It was tough in those days because we were just kids and he made us do hard work. I guess that’s why I grew up and became a workaholic. I had been working for most of my life. I really liked school and was really sad I got pulled out. I was so ashamed around the other kids because I couldn’t read or write.

You could never imagine what it felt like getting by without an education.

I never told anyone I couldn’t read or write. I kept it to myself. I learned how to be a pretty good bluffer in those days. No one ever knew except my wife, Jean. We were married for two years before she found out.

When we was married I took care of everything, you know, paying bills and things like that, but I knew how to do things without having to write anything. After a while I had to work more and it got harder so I told her I think she should go to secretary school to learn how to take care of things. She asked me why I wasn’t going to do it anymore and when I told her I couldn’t read or write, boy was she some surprised.

But aside from her I didn’t tell nobody else.

One day before she got real sick my granddaughter came to me with something to read. I had her read it to me. It was by Georgie there - that’s what I call him, George Dawson. He was the son of a slave and he couldn’t read either. He learned to read and write at 98, and he got his high school diploma after that.

Geez, I said. If he can do it, I can do it. So I decided to give it a try.

I asked my wife to help but then she was getting real sick and she told me to ask my grandson’s wife to help. She was learning to be a teacher in the third grade, right up my alley. I had more help too, from my other granddaughters and my nephew Bobby. He was a teacher too and gave me some papers and tested me and told me he knew I could do it.

So I did my best to try and learn. Bobby gave me the ambition to do it when he told me not to call him because he wouldn’t answer. He said write me a letter. And I tell you, that was the best thing he could have done because I really was determined to do that.

I’m really proud of that letter. I wrote it after I wrote the book. I even kept it and had it framed. It’s on the wall at my house. I’m real proud of that letter.

After Jean died, I was real bad. I stopped everything and didn’t touch the books. I think I went four or five years like that. Then I broke my hip and had to do a lot of exercise to get back. After that I ended up with some flare up like arthritis and after that I had to find another place to live because the doctor said I couldn’t live home alone anymore. It was too dangerous if it acted up again.

My granddaughters found this place here (Academy Point at Mystic) and I've been here ever since. Once I got settled in – and let me tell you, that was hard, real hard – I told my granddaughters that I might as well finish what I started instead of just sitting around in a corner waiting to die. Some days I felt like dying too.

I used to do everything all by myself, clean and cook and drive my car anywhere I wanted. I felt stuck. But then I got my tutor, Mark Hogan, and he really helped me. We started to learn everything his way, and then I think he realized that I wanted to learn to read and write.

I didn’t care about all those butterflies - that’s what I call them - periods and all those butterflies flying around the words. I could read alright. I would stay up 'til midnight reading. The book would drop off my lap when I fell asleep and I would have to pick it up with the cherry picker; and it would happen again until I decided it was time to go to sleep. But those butterflies I didn’t care for.

Mark thought it would be a good idea to write all my life down in a book ["In A Fisherman's Language"] and it turned out pretty good.

It was some hard, though, trying to spell certain words. I couldn’t find them in the dictionary because some words have that silent letter. I had a lot of help and I am so thankful for those people. I can’t even believe it that this little book I wrote done so much. Everybody tells me how much they like it and they say when they read the book they feel like I’m talking right to them. I’m real glad I stuck to it.

I feel reborn since this book. It’s been the best thing that’s happened to me.


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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.