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Sunday, February 27, 2005

He waits on his porch for his teacher to pick him up.

This picture is scanned from a Wall Street Journal ad circa 1998. The caption: "100-year-old George Dawson waits on the porch every school day for his teacher to pick him up." When I saw it, I started weeping. I still get teary when I see it.

Shortly after this picture was taken, George Dawson became quite a celebrity; here is his story, courtesy of Google.

Grandson of slaves, Dawson was born in a three-room log cabin on a farm near Marshall, Texas in 1898. He started work at 4. When he was 10, he saw a good friend lynched. When he was 12, he was sent out to work on a nearby farm. He earned $1.15 or so a week which helped feed his parents and four younger brothers and sisters, who went to school though Dawson could not.

As a young adult, he traveled all over, sometimes riding the rails as a hobo. He visited Mexico and New Orleans and went to Canada to see snow. He broke wild horses, built levees on the Mississippi, and shoveled dirt into mule-drawn wagons.

In 1928, he moved to Dallas where he worked on the railroad, did road crew work for the city, and tended boilers at a dairy for 25 years.

Dawson "helped" all seven of his children with their homework every night. They never realized he couldn't read.

In 1996, a literacy volunteer knocked on Mr. Dawson's door and told him adult education courses were being taught a few blocks away. Mr. Dawson responded eagerly, "Wait, I'll get my coat."

"I agreed to take it on temporarily, and in walks this 98-year-old man wanting to read," his teacher Carl Henry, retired head of the music program for the Dallas schools, recalled.

Dawson: "My first day of school was January 4, 1996. I was ninety-eight years old and I'm still going....I'm up by five-thirty to make my lunch, pack my books, and go over my schoolwork. Books was something missing from my life for so long....I learned to read my ABC's in two days -- I was in a hurry....Now I am a man that can read." He signed his name for the first time at age 98.

The Discovery Channel, The Oprah Winfrey Show, Nightline, People magazine and Good Morning America profiled his life. Two universities awarded him honorary degrees.

He collaborated with a Washington state schoolteacher to write a book about his life, "Life Is So Good." (It was translated into other languages; this is the cover of the French edition.)

The book's financial success let Mr. Dawson raze his dilapidated house and build a new one. Still, after all the travel and the interviews and the awards, he settled back into his regular routine of attending adult school classes in social studies, science and math, and cooking himself the "common food" to which he attributed his longevity: hot chocolate and white bread for breakfast, barbecue and milk for lunch, catfish for dinner. George Dawson died July 5, 2001 at the age of 103. It was quite a ride.

See President proposes cuts to adult literacy programs.

So Get Involved Already!

If you want to help people learn to read, at this Verizon site and America's Literacy Directory websites you can find places near you to volunteer.

Locally, the Orange County Literacy Council writes: "Anyone who is a good reader and enjoys working with people can be trained to be an adult literacy tutor." They have a directory for other North Carolina programs.

Or you can work with kids in the Student Reading Program in the Chapel Hill/Carrboro schools. It's super fun, I just waltz into that school building a couple times a week and sit with one kid at a time for 20-30 minutes, reading. They are bouncy and cute and really need us; many do not have a parent at home who can read with them. Susan Pearce (919-967-8211 x 336) is director. You can try to email her at but they have a killer spam filter on their system so better to call.

Also, I do a lot of reading with my mentee (Here's my post on what a delight that is). Call Graig Meyer 921-2170 for information on joining that program. (Call before March 2 to get in on the current round.)

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At 8:42 AM, Blogger Claude Covo-Farchi said...

Thanks for George Dawson's story, I found it very moving too.

At 8:46 AM, Blogger Craig said...

I was a volunteer literacy tutor in Seattle in '89 and '90. It was a great experience. My tutee grew up in Vicksburg, Mississippi. I've since learned that my great great grandfather's regiment was part of the Siege of Vicksburg. People who don't read because they can't can give you a real appreciation for what it means to be literate.

At 9:22 AM, Blogger jessp said...

Michele sent me!
Great blog!

At 9:22 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh I visited your site from Michele (Michele sent me) But I just LOVED your story on George Dawson. I'll definatley be back your your blog, thank you!

Lucy Jane

At 9:34 AM, Blogger sapere aude said...

Inspirational! My sister and I grew up with our parents always saying, "the world can take away all your worldly possessions, but if you read and write well, it can never take away your mind." Thank you for sharing. I understand that Pres. Bush has proposed budget cuts in many programs... I disagree. Many of these programs fund children whose parents cannot afford certain amenities. It is sad.

At 10:20 AM, Blogger Michele said...

Oh my, I just fell in love with George Dawson. How wonderful he is.

Yes, I have been and continue to be involved in local literacy programs. Reading is my passion, so how could I not be involved in sharing this passion?

At 1:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for sharing George's story; it made me cry, too.

One of the greatest joys of my life right now is watching my little boy become a reader. Sometimes when he's reading to me, he'll look up in triumph after sounding out a difficult word and it just takes my breath away.

At 2:19 PM, Blogger SC&A said...

Wonderful story.

To say anything else, detracts.

At 7:17 PM, Blogger Gaby de Wilde said...

Great post, sad story.

At 8:22 PM, Blogger elle said...

I loved this book. I read it a while ago. I was quite inspired by his incredibly simplistic worldly ways.

At 11:02 PM, Blogger c-no-evil said...

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At 3:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Have loved Mr. Dawson since the first chapter of "Life.." Am now working on a scholarship essay with the required subject of, "One person who most influenced my life in a positive way." He's the one.

At 2:12 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for putting the photos here. The book did not have as many. It is good to George studying!

At 1:43 AM, Anonymous dhemz said...

great post! this will definitely help my book report....this is the book I chose on my reading class....thanks for the snippet....:)

At 4:09 PM, Anonymous Sheila said...

What an extraordinary story. George Dawson was determined to be an avid reader.

At 1:13 PM, Blogger Mariana Macedo said...

Hello, I loved your project! I had a similar in Brasil. My name is Mariana Macedo, and I am a filmmaker who did a documentary about a group of 8 elderly who were learning how to read and write.
My film is on Youtube and you check it out on the address:



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