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.

soundoff (111 Responses)
  1. Kristen

    What a beautiful story, and what an inspiration you are! What is your next goal?

    March 7, 2012 at 18:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. anon

    Wow. Simply awesome.

    March 7, 2012 at 18:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Mike

    Love the story, I am glad to hear that you stuck to it and after all this time achieved your goal! Such great positivity in the world is much needed!

    March 7, 2012 at 18:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Katrina Kelly

    Your story brought tears to my eyes. You are such an inspiration. Thank you so much for sharing your story. It is so wonderful.

    March 7, 2012 at 19:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. czerendipity

    This is a beautiful story. I want to read his book!

    March 7, 2012 at 19:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. bill

    Amazing – what an inspiration! What a great story, on my way to Amazon to buy the book.

    March 7, 2012 at 19:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Joe

    I know how to read, write and spell words at the drop of a hat and have written a book literary agents keep passing up. But I am so glad that gentleman has gotten his book published and I wish him lots of success with it. Let this be a lesson to literary agents who are in control of writers everywhere; all us writers who love to read and know how to tell a good story have something important to say. Stop looking for the next Harry Potter or the next "The Help." You will find a wonderful book in each of us if you simply approach our queries with an open mind.

    March 7, 2012 at 19:09 | Report abuse | Reply
    • joderito

      This is a wonderful comment. I hope it inspires others to find the story within, and for us readers to listen with more open hearts and minds. Thank you.

      March 7, 2012 at 21:28 | Report abuse |
    • Willowspring

      Many, many books are passed over by editors who I believe become too jaded and don't look at a book submission from a new writer with fresh eyes. I'm so glad James Henry made that leap and learned to read and write. I'm going on Amazon right now to look for his book. I love this story!

      March 10, 2012 at 00:36 | Report abuse |
    • lj logan

      you can publish easily on amazon e books

      April 24, 2012 at 03:57 | Report abuse |
  8. Jean Doyle

    I live in Groton, CT and this man's story has been big news here. I purchased the book and read it. So proud that this man worked so hard to become literate and to share his stories with us. Inspiring to say the least.

    March 7, 2012 at 19:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. SixDegrees

    A remarkable story, very well told. A great, great piece of writing.

    March 7, 2012 at 19:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Cecil

    "I wept because I had no shoes, until I saw a man who had no feet"...

    I complained I couldn't write as well as I wanted to until I heard of a man that couldn't even read late in life, made it his mission to, and then wrote a book!

    Sir you brought tears to my eyes!

    March 7, 2012 at 19:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Smile

    That's incredible. The toughness and humility this man has is extraordinary.

    March 7, 2012 at 19:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Dave

    OK, I'll admit the fact that this kind is old as dirt, so I understand he was slighted by his father when he was denied an education while he was young. So that buys him maybe 18 to 21 years of having a reasonable excuse for not learning to read. Then we come to adulthood. Are you telling me that by the mid-1930's, once he was an adult, he had no means of getting enough education to read? I realize the support systems available to the adult illiterates of today didn't exist then. But if he was committed enough to learn how to read, I would think he could have pursued it some time between 1935 and 2004 (when he finally did learn to read). So what's the reason? Shame? Come on, shame is all about self-confidence. If there were some vital life skill I needed as an adult, I would hope I'd have the courage to pursue before reaching my 90's.

    Good for this guy for ultimately learning to read and then putting the craft to use as an author. I just have one question... What took you so long?

    March 7, 2012 at 19:32 | Report abuse | Reply
    • ray

      He was probably following Santorum's point of view of what's the point of education. Got along fine this far without it, what's the big deal.

      March 7, 2012 at 19:52 | Report abuse |
    • adriana

      why dont you just be quite and read the story? thank you!

      March 7, 2012 at 19:56 | Report abuse |
    • Dann

      Don't be a jerk....say congratulations, be happy for him and move along. No need to be negative.

      March 7, 2012 at 20:08 | Report abuse |
    • EvilBrian

      Dave, this man clearly wanted to be literate younger. There are many ailments and obligations that can setback or prevent someone from achieving such goals. That assumed, I recommend taking some time to study Psychology if you'd like to better understand why these types of things happen.

      I just have one question. Are you going to educate yourself or will I need to explain it?

      March 7, 2012 at 20:47 | Report abuse |
    • Juan Raoul

      Dude... Stop being a d-bag. Just be cool, man.

      March 7, 2012 at 20:57 | Report abuse |
    • Helen Hevener

      The man is amazing – I expect he did want to learn to read but he didnt get to attend school much- had to quit school to work for his dad at an early age. He got married and then had a family- he provided well for his wife and family- so that no one even suspected he didnt know how to read- except he did finally tell his wife he couldnt read. I think it is absolutely amazing that this man learned to read at 90 and had a book published at 96- show's you that if you really want it bad enough you can get it!!! Inspiring story for me!!!!

      March 7, 2012 at 21:02 | Report abuse |
    • joderito

      I bet his book might answer that question.

      March 7, 2012 at 21:29 | Report abuse |
    • Stephanie

      Dave, it is unfortunate that you are so jaded and self-centered that you feel the need to question this man's success. Nobody cares about your opinion. Please leave this space to people who wish to praise and encourage a man who overcame a struggle later in life. Success can come at any age. Plain and simple.

      March 7, 2012 at 22:41 | Report abuse |
    • Evelyn

      Good question. My guess is that sitting right on top of his shame, was his pride, and right on top of that was stubbornness. Apply that to a man who, literally, worked around the clock to support his family (and most of this work was at sea in societal isolation), to a man who witnessed his adult daughter die of Leukemia, and hid his emotion from that as well, why, it becomes obvious that it simply took all that to finally break him down. You may get what you're looking for in your question by reading his story about being a boxer. We are all made of different stuff. Some materials are tougher than others to break down.

      March 7, 2012 at 22:56 | Report abuse |
    • billybob

      He was probably up and about most of his life working hard, not chillin on his butt in front of a computer monitor talking crap like a kid who lives in his parents basement.

      March 8, 2012 at 01:17 | Report abuse |
    • Socrates

      Well, I am guessing the reason why it took him so long to learn to read is the same reason why you have yet to develop empathy towards other human beings. Let's face it Dave, some of us are just late starters, no need to be critical, least of all destructive criticsm. "It aint too late until you stop breathing".
      As to the article, well, I admire this man, simple as that. Excellent example of what we are able to do if we don't give up.

      March 8, 2012 at 10:54 | Report abuse |
    • melvin m

      Just be happy for this man, you dont know what his life EXACTLY was like from 1935-2004. theres a purpose for everything. Congrats to mr.henry

      March 8, 2012 at 19:52 | Report abuse |
    • KC

      Dave, at any point in each of our lives there are things we could/should have accomplished that we have not. Whatever age YOU are, no doubt there are things you should or could have done by now that you have not. So get busy Dave–what's taking you so long?

      March 9, 2012 at 10:36 | Report abuse |
    • Willowspring

      For heavens sake. Give the guy a break. He was earning a living and raising a family at a time when this country was struggling and scratching for every penny. We had just come out of WW1 and really hard financial times. Then a depression on it's heels, followed by another war even worse than the first. Yes, he was ashamed! He also is a very humble person, that's obvious, and he kept it to himself and got by. Many people did that sort of thing many years ago. Hindsight is always 20-20, so don't try to second guess what this man's life was like. Just be happy for him and count your blessings if you had a better life. More power to him and from this story he is quite a man.

      March 10, 2012 at 00:46 | Report abuse |
  13. Cecil


    Perhaps he had to make a living?

    March 7, 2012 at 19:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. cm

    rock on!

    March 7, 2012 at 19:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. anonymous

    If this sin't inspiration, then I don't know what is. There's always a silver lining...

    March 7, 2012 at 20:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Cecil

    I was wondering how long it would take for the negativity to start. 🙁

    March 7, 2012 at 20:09 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Taffy

      I know what you mean, Cecil. There's one in every bunch. All that aside, what an inspiring story!

      March 7, 2012 at 22:26 | Report abuse |
  17. Teararound


    March 7, 2012 at 20:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. Ulanie

    Let me tell you something about his time, nothing was given to you, nothing taken for granted.. do you realize the era this man had lived through? I admire him to accept his abilities and continue in the face of adversity, I know I do it every day of my life. I love his support system, we all aren't blessed with such a thing. My hat off to you kind man, you worked hard, raised a good family, loved and lost. With all that said, you did more for your family and your fellow man than most teen and twenty-somethings combined. I hope the youth of our country can take an ounce of what you have and turn it into what you did. Self perseverance and dignity in the face of failure and shame. Thank you for who you are and what you have taught a plethora of individuals grappling with their own demons. May the rest of your years on Earth bring you peace and the respect you deserve.

    March 7, 2012 at 21:05 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Willowspring

      A very sincere Amen!!

      March 10, 2012 at 00:48 | Report abuse |
    • annasheart

      All I can say is ...AMEN!!! I couldn't have said it any better.

      March 10, 2012 at 12:39 | Report abuse |
  19. adam

    nd they say you can't teach an old dog new tricks? Awesome story.

    March 7, 2012 at 21:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. unowhoitsme

    Wonderful inspiring story! ANYONE can achieve their goals...it's a choice that takes discipline and hard work. Thanks, Henry, for being a great role model...and showing everyone that it's never too late.

    March 7, 2012 at 21:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Glynne1964

    Great story! I've got to get my hands on that book! Only thing I find sad, is that I learned to read at about 3-4 yrs. old & I LOVE IT!!! Shame he missed out on all that time to read & enjoy the beauty that is books!

    Hmmm...maybe I ought to pick up my writing again?

    March 7, 2012 at 21:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. Philosopher3

    If this man at a ripe age of 90+ can embark on a inner journey to learn how to read imagine all the possibilities that we the younger generation are capable of as well. It is truly remarkable reading this man's personal journey to achieve his goal of reading and writing. Stories like this literally stoke the inner fire within me to dare to dream big and drive myself to achieve. The big take away message to all readers should be not to short change yourself, as we are all destined for greatness once we only decide to pursue it with all our vigor. Dare to take that class you always dreamed of enrolling, push yourself past those comfort boundaries, converse with people you may not give the light of day too or disagree altogether. By all means dream big and work hard to make the vision manifest itself in reality. Thank you to the author of this wonderful article!

    March 7, 2012 at 21:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. John

    Wonderful story! I teach children with special needs in an inner-city school. They would love this story!!

    March 7, 2012 at 21:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. str8whtguy

    Wow! What a great story. Despite his age, I hope he has some time left to read some of the really cool stuff out there. Dude, you're an inspiration.

    March 7, 2012 at 21:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. Poodles

    Ducks go quack. Quack quack quack. There are lots of people who have never seen a duck eat a waffle while singing happy birthday.

    March 7, 2012 at 21:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. jC in Western U.S.

    I want to be just like you when I get older. I want to keep learning no matter how old I am. Thank you for showing us that 90 isn't too late to something new.

    March 7, 2012 at 22:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. Rexdogcanadien

    You sir, deserve a medal of honor. Your story made me shed tears of joy. Keep writing. You have many more stories to share with the young and the old; with the rich and the poor; with the literate and the illiterate.

    March 7, 2012 at 22:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. MoodyMoody

    I'm an ESOL teacher of adults, many of whom are in their 50s and 60s. They sometimes get discouraged because it isn't as easy for them to learn English as it is for younger students. I think they will like this story as well. Congratulations, Mr. Henry, on your perseverance!

    March 7, 2012 at 22:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. Gurdev S Ghangas

    Great inspirational story, pleasant to read and important to remember.

    March 7, 2012 at 22:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. Chris

    That's pretty cool. Kudos to this guy.

    March 7, 2012 at 22:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. Tomahawk35

    This remarkable story proves we are never too old to pursue our dreams. For humor's sake; who says you can't teach an old guy new tricks!

    March 7, 2012 at 22:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  32. Awesome story

    You rock Mr. Henry! You're living proof that people can accomplish great things no matter what their age may be.

    March 7, 2012 at 22:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  33. Johnny

    This man is an inspiration and his struggles and embarrassment over his secret should be a lesson to younger people who see no use for even a rudimentary education (and their parents who also see no need for it).

    March 8, 2012 at 06:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  34. Ibby

    A lovely read. Thank you for sharing your story

    March 8, 2012 at 07:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  35. Bill

    This is an inspirational story that should be shared with every school kid in this country, as it proves that life is so much better with an education.

    Congratulations, Mr. Henry, on your accomplishment!

    March 8, 2012 at 07:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  36. Roger

    Way to go Dave, i agree with you! So big deal this old bag learned to read and write. Probably nothing better to do with his time and there are more important things in life than learning to read and write! Take it from me

    March 8, 2012 at 13:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  37. moi

    Roger? Maybe you should read a book on effective trolling.

    March 8, 2012 at 14:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  38. jj

    Bless your heart, what an inspiration!

    March 8, 2012 at 18:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  39. anony

    oh my gosh this is such an inspiration

    March 8, 2012 at 20:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  40. G

    Beautiful story.

    March 8, 2012 at 21:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  41. realist

    As I read this article, I found myself wishing we had the work ethic of his generation in our society. The real point to this man's story is how people had to WORK in America's past to survive. SImple, you work or you don't eat. They had no credit cards, state support systems and limited personal credit options; things were paid for with cash. And more importantly, people like him and many of our grandparents, etc., appreciated work. Earning your keep was expected; government support was not. This is a true example of someone who is very proud of himself. Very cool.

    March 8, 2012 at 21:28 | Report abuse | Reply
    • DT

      Must people try to turn every article into a soapbox for their political views? Give it a rest for five minutes.

      March 9, 2012 at 03:45 | Report abuse |
    • Keith Pearson

      DT, he didn't mention left or right, Dem or Repub at all. Where I live in West Texas, there are a whole lot of elderly people, lifelong diehard Democrats, who would agree completely with everything realist said. Those are values which should be universal, did use to be so, and those values helped build America to its peak. Have a great Sunday, and God Bless Mr. Henry!

      March 11, 2012 at 11:40 | Report abuse |
  42. leah

    tears in my eyes. am filled with hope and motivation to 'push' my 18 year old autistic son's reading level beyond that of a 3rd grader. thank you.

    March 9, 2012 at 10:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  43. sylvan finkelstein


    March 9, 2012 at 15:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  44. Marnie

    Best story of the day! Calling Barnes and Noble now to get the book...I want to support his efforts with more than my words of (well deserved) praise.

    March 9, 2012 at 15:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  45. rick vidallon

    Bravo. You can just see the life he lived by looking at his hands.

    March 9, 2012 at 20:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  46. JT

    Never too old to learn, good for him.

    March 9, 2012 at 21:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  47. JA

    Sir, you are an inspiration to us all! I just bought your story via Amazon and cannot wait to read it!

    March 10, 2012 at 10:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  48. Deanna

    This story is so touching and heartwarming. It brought tears to my eyes and joy to my heart.
    You are such an inspiration Mr. Henry!

    March 10, 2012 at 12:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  49. anon

    This was truly touching. Bless his soul for having the courage to learn at that age.It makes me truly grateful for life and to know that everyday is an opportunity. God Bless 🙂

    March 10, 2012 at 19:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  50. Keith Pearson

    Sir, you are indeed an inspiration, as is Mr. Dawson. A lifetime of hard work, raising a good family, and the subject of this story is truly the icing on the cake. And not the cheapo icing either! I've been a lifetime voracious reader, and I completely enjoy every single member of the club, whether child, elderly, or anywhere in between. I just purchased your book, will post the link at various websites, and I would be a steal at thrice the price! Many more happy years to you and your family!

    March 11, 2012 at 11:35 | Report abuse | Reply
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