As “the Fonz” in the TV comedy “Happy Days,” Henry Winkler was absolute coolness.
The classically trained actor has appeared on TV and the big screen, but to those of a certain age, he is most remembered for being the leather-clad greaser who made girls swoon — and who could also make vending machines spit out free sodas with his fist.
Growing up, however, Winkler felt zero coolness as he bitterly struggled in school, and was called stupid, lazy. He later struggled mastering the “Happy Days” scripts.
At age 31, he learned he had dyslexia. Also that same year, he read his first book.
Inspired by his personal experience, Winkler also turned to writing a series of children’s books starring Hank Zipzer, a fourth-grader who has problems with math and reading — but who is also funny, bright and resourceful.
Now 69, Winkler frequently talks about the challenges that come with dyslexia and what parents and other adults can do to help children with learning disabilities thrive. Winkler will speak at a symposium organized by the International Dyslexia Association (Georgia Branch) at 8:30 a.m. Feb. 7 at Georgia State’s Rialto Center for the Arts.
The event will feature a panel of experts who will discuss navigating resources and strategies for dyslexic students and adults, including information about free and low-cost training programs to help teachers assist students with dyslexia.
“What I learned is that how you learn has nothing to do with how brilliant you are,” Winkler said in a recent phone interview. “A learning challenge does not have to stop you from realizing your dream.”
Q: How did you realize at age 31 you had dyslexia? Were you diagnosed?
A: I wasn’t diagnosed. What had happened is my oldest son was diagnosed and everything they said about him was true about me. I realized I had something with a name, and that I wasn’t slow or stupid. Everything I said to my son, who was in the third grade at the time, that he is so verbal and so funny and a musician, and he is just being lazy. It was the same thing people said to me. After my son was tested and diagnosed with dyslexia, everything changed for him, and for me. At first, I was angry because I thought about all of the yelling and punishment and the strife and embarrassment I got — at home, school, from tutors and other kids — for nothing.
Q: What was school like for you?
A: I went to a private boys school and got by in school by the skin of my teeth. When you don’t perform, it’s very possible to be ridiculed, so I covered everything up with humor and being a good dancer and doing the limbo — anything I could to cover or mask the fact I was failing in everything. School — it was like rolling a boulder up a hill.
Q: You have said you read your first book at age 31. What was it and do you read much now?
A: At 31, I started reading my first book — “The Clan of the Cave Bear.” Until that time, I was completely intimidated by the process and I thought I couldn’t do it. I heard people talking about the book, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was a great story. I sussed out that my brain does very well with thrillers and suspense books. I have said this before: Every novel, up until a month ago, is a hardcover book and on my shelf. Each one is a triumph.
Since I travel a lot, I got an Amazon Fire (reading tablet) about a month ago and download books. I never thought I could read like that on a screen, but it’s working out. I still go to bookstores and touch books because I have now made friends with them.
Q: When you were cast as the Fonz, where were you on your journey? Did you know at that point you had dyslexia?
A: I was 27 when I got the part and it wasn’t until four years later (I learned I had dyslexia). I remember sitting around the table and reading those scripts and being completely embarrassed because all I did was stumble and I had to really go over them.
Q: How did you decide to write the Hank Zipzer books?
A: My agent suggested it. At first, I didn’t think I could do it. But in 2003, I met my writing partner, Lin Oliver. And we are now starting our 28th book. Hank is short for Henry, and Zipzer was the name of a woman who lived on the fourth floor of my building in New York City and I thought it was a zippy name. Everything we write is comedy, and as it turns out, kids say, oh you know me so well. Hank is a glass completely full kind of kid — he just spills it everywhere. I want kids to know whatever obstacle they face, there is a way around it.
“Dimensions of Dyslexia”
Actor and author Henry Winkler will speak at a symposium organized by the International Dyslexia Association-Georgia Branch (IDA-GA). This symposium is part of an annual “Dimensions of Dyslexia” educational event. 8:30 a.m. Feb. 7. $35 students; $40 members; $55 for general admissions. Georgia State’s Rialto Center for the Arts, 80 Forsyth St. N.W., Atlanta. To purchase tickets, go to http://bit.ly/IDAGAWinkler.
FACTS ABOUT DYSLEXIA
- Dyslexia is a language-based learning disability that is neurological in origin.
- Approximately 15 percent to 20 percent of the people around the world have a language-based learning disability.
- Of those who are students, 70 percent to 80 percent struggle with reading.
- Dyslexia is the most common cause of reading, writing and spelling difficulties.
- Dyslexia affects males and females equally, as well as people from different ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds.
Source: The International Dyslexia Association-Georgia Branch
For more information, go to www.idaga.org.