Some say that learning is a lifelong journey. This phrase certainly applies to Jim Henry who, at age 96, learned to read. Eager to put his new literacy skills to use, he wrote a 29 chapter autobiography. While learning to read is not something one would expect a man of Jim’s age to tackle, his story is as inspiring as it is heartwarming. More importantly, Jim’s story can teach us about the perseverance of the human spirit through time. His final years were spent endeavoring to better himself despite the imminence of the end of his life.
The Story Begins
When Jim Henry was in the third grade, hard times forced his immigrant father to have him drop out of school and look for odd jobs. From a young age, Jim worked around fishing boats and he later made a lifelong career as a fisherman. Jim became successful and happy with his career, but he had a secret. It wasn’t until he was 92 that even his closest family knew he couldn’t read or write. Jim had managed to keep the truth hidden for nearly a century by resorting to clever tricks. For most of his life, he was able to work around incidents that required him to read. Only his late wife had ever learned his secret after he insisted she do the family’s bookkeeping. Tragedy struck when Jim signed a document (which he refused to explain in any more detail) that changed the rest of his life. Because he could not read, he did not know what he was getting himself into, and the consequences of his mistake hurt his family and alienated them for years. “I was so ashamed. Sometimes I cried,” Jim remembered.
It wasn’t until he heard the story of George Dawson, the son of a slave who overcame illiteracy at 98 and wrote a book at age 101, that Jim Henry decided to take action. “I figured, if he could do it, then I could too,” Jim stated matter-of-factly. So he commenced his work, practicing his name and the ABC’s in his kitchen. Eventually, he was able to master reading and writing basic words. If he came across a word he didn’t know, he looked it up in a dictionary. It looked as though the guessing games were over.
Jim Henry’s Roaring Success
Once he had a good mastery of the written language, Jim began his arduous adventure into book writing. In his autobiography, In a Fisherman’s Language, Jim relayed his life’s struggles, the challenges he overcame, and his adventures abroad on all the world’s the oceans. Within its pages lay a story that spans nearly a century. It tells of his youth in the Azores Islands, catching lobster in New England, and the many tragedies he lived at sea. It was a success in his hometown of Mystic, CT, and later attracted fans from across the globe, from California to Greece. Some say he outsold Steve Jobs’ book within a month.
After writing a book of his own, he enjoyed the works of other authors such as Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. Additionally, now that his secret was out, and he could write, he began writing letters to the family he hadn’t spoken to in a long time. By his perseverance and courage in facing up to his inability to read, Jim Henry was not only able to learn to read and write, but also become a successful author and make amends with his estranged family.
Life’s Final Journey
Jim Henry’s story tells us that you’re never too old to learn a new trick, and it’s certainly never too late to continue to enjoy life and explore new skills. You can find a copy of Jim Henry’s book on his website. Jim passed away in 2013 and his family continues to cherish his memory and encourages those they encounter to overcome their own personal struggles, just as Jim had.