Actor-Author Discusses Dyslexia at Local Event
“To me, reading looked like a magic trick, and I wasn’t in on the secret,” says Henry Winkler, the award-winning actor, producer, director and children’s advocate.
Turning lines and squiggles on a page into stories eluded him as a boy and remains difficult for him even today. That’s because Winkler, creator of the iconic TV character “The Fonz,” is dyslexic.
But that hasn’t stopped him from successfully tackling yet another career — that of author. Since 2003, Winkler and his writing partner, Lin Oliver, have collaborated on their bestselling series of novels for young readers, “Hank Zipzer, The World’s Greatest Underachiever,” a sort of “Harry Potter for kids with learning difficulties.”
On Thursday, May 13, at 2 p.m. at The O’Neal School auditorium in Southern Pines, Henry Winkler will share the story of his struggle to cope with dyslexia as told through the funny misadventures of his alter-ego, Hank Zipzer. This ticketed event is presented by The Country Bookshop and is, in part, a fundraiser for the nonprofit Moore County Literacy Council.
“We are very grateful to The Country Bookshop for inviting donations to Moore County Literacy Council,” says Susan Sherard, executive director. “Many of our students, like Henry Winkler, went through school with undiagnosed learning disabilities and challenges, and they entered adulthood with very limited literacy skills. Our goal is to provide free tutoring services for the adult Hank Zipzers of the world, so that they — and their families — can realize their full potential.”
“The Country Bookshop is very happy to partner with The O’Neal School to bring Mr. Winkler here for this once-in-a-lifetime event,” says Angie Tally, manager of the store’s children’s section. “He is a fantastic role model and is a wonderfully inspirational — and entertaining — speaker for parents and children alike. He tells his story with great humor, but his message to children and parents is very clear. ‘There is no shame in having a learning disability, no matter what the challenge may be,’ he says. ‘Children with a learning challenge have a wonderful gift inside them, and their job is to figure out what that gift is, dig it out, and give it to the world. All they need is support, support, a little more support, and then some support. And ALL of that support must be positive.’”
Henry Helmut Franklin Winkler was born six years after his parents immigrated to New York City from Germany in 1939. From the beginning, he struggled in every subject in school, especially reading and math. By the time he was in the fourth grade, his parents and teachers told him he was stupid, lazy and not living up to his potential. His father insulted him in 11 different languages, including “dumme hund” — German for “dumb dog.” His self-esteem, Winkler admits, was “down around my ankles.”
Rather than offering the support he longed for, his parents were determined to find the punishment that was going to force him to get better grades. There was no strategy; there was just grounding. They were convinced if he stayed in his room and was forced to do his homework, he would “get it.” He wasn’t allowed to watch TV or go out with friends. For the boy who dreamed of becoming an actor, the worst punishment was being repeatedly barred from appearing in school plays, the one thing he excelled at.
Winkler remembers desperately — and fruitlessly — longing for his parents to be there for him when he felt so lost. But with or without their support, he was determined to graduate so he could study acting. Although he didn’t walk down the aisle to get his diploma with his high school class, he finally graduated in the bottom three percent of the nation academically.
Amazingly, he was accepted at Emerson College where he earned a bachelor’s degree in drama and child psychology in 1967, and then a master’s of fine arts degree from Yale School of Drama in 1970. He has since received two honorary Doctorates of Humane Letters.
In 1973, at the age of 28, Winkler got the part he is best known for — that of high school dropout Arthur “Fonzie” Fonzarelli on the television show “Happy Days.” During the 10 years he played the role, he was nominated for an Emmy Award three times and won two Golden Globe Awards.
Winkler struggled with the challenges of undiagnosed dyslexia until 1978, when his stepson, Jed, was tested for learning problems. After hearing his diagnosis of dyslexia, Winkler realized that he, too, was dyslexic. While he was relieved that he actually had something with a name and hadn’t been stupid his entire life, that knowledge didn’t diminish the anger he felt for his parents, nor did it lessen the emotional pain and humiliation he suffered, or repair the damage to his self-esteem.
In 2003, Winkler agreed to share his story in a series of humorous novels for young people featuring a 9-year-old boy who happens to be dyslexic. He and his writing partner, Lin Oliver, wrote their first Hank Zipzer book, “Niagara Falls, or Does It?” and seven years later, have ended it with the 17th and final installment, “A Brand-New Me!”
Admission tickets for the “Meet Henry Winkler” event are free and available only at The Country Bookshop in Southern Pines with the purchase of the first or last book in the Hank Zipzer series, or with a minimum $5 contribution (cash or check only) to the Moore County Literacy Council made at the store. Seating for the event is limited.
Due to time constraints, Winkler will sign (no personalizations) books purchased only at The Country Bookshop (please, no “Fonzie” memorabilia), with a limit of two books per person or as time allows. Photography is allowed, but there will be no posed pictures.
For more information, call The Country Bookshop at (910) 692-3211.
This is the first of two stories about Henry Winkler. On Friday, Faye Dasen talks with Henry Winkler about coping with dyslexia and writing the “Hank Zipzer” series.
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