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A Legacy of Literacy 'In a Fisherman’s Language'

Published Apr 08, 2013 • Last Updated 02:48 pm, April 09, 2013

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Capt. James Arruda Henry had a truly amazing story, but he wasn't able to publish it as his autobiography-In a Fisherman's Language-until he was 98 years old. That's because he didn't learn to read and write until he was in his mid-90s.
Despite his death this past January at the age of 99, Capt. Henry's family is making sure that his story lives on. Not only are they continuing to promote his book, but they're also fighting illiteracy in his honor, and using his incredible achievements so late in life as an example to everyone-young and old-to never give up on their dreams.
Born in the U.S. to Portuguese immigrants from the Azores Islands, Henry had an abusive father who made him quit school in 3rd grade, along with his brother, to work odd jobs. He lived for more than nine decades unable to read or write or even sign his own name. And yet, among his many accomplishments, after moving to Stonington at the age of 18, he captained a lobster boat, worked at Electric Boat in Groton, served in the National Guard, was a skilled carpenter and plumber, and even built his own home.
Henry hid his illiteracy from his family and friends, using various tricks to get by, ashamed that he never learned to read.
As close as they were to him, Henry's granddaughter, Marlisa McLaughlin, and great-granddaughter, Maxine Smith, say they didn't have the slightest inkling that Henry couldn't read or write.
"My grandmother was the only one who knew," McLaughlin says. "She did all the bookkeeping [for his business]; he sent her to secretarial school."
Nevertheless, McLaughlin says her grandfather was "quick-witted, precise, and practical"-and an excellent oral storyteller.
Henry probably would have continued to hide his lack of literacy from the world if he hadn't found out about George Dawson, the grandson of a slave who wanted to earn his high-school diploma and learned to read and write at 98-and then published his memoir, Life is Good.
Henry was motivated to reveal his own secret.
"'If he can do it at 98, I can do it at 91,'" the women recall Henry saying.
McLaughlin thinks what inspired Henry about Dawson was that "he came from the same generation as my grandfather and he was poor, too. He suffered from a lot of that American class distinction; a lot of privilege was not handed to them. The stereotypical Portuguese is a green horn who was stupid-because of lack of education, I guess. If that guy could do it as an underdog, it gave my grandfather the ambition that he could get out there and do it, too."
Henry started out by reading books for 1st graders and spent many hours learning how to write, beginning with the alphabet and his name, and moving on to small words.
"He asked for a dictionary and correlated pictures with words. He very systematically approached learning," McLaughlin explains.
With the help of Mark Hogan of Literacy Volunteers of Eastern Connecticut, Henry began writing his own stories down.
"Mark got him to believe he had important things to say-a really valuable thing for my grandfather," McLaughlin says.
The result was In a Fisherman's Language, a collection of heartfelt short stories and anecdotes about Henry's life.
"It's in his voice, not overly edited besides spelling," McLaughlin notes.
When the book was published in 2011, Henry received a congratulatory letter from President Obama and In a Fisherman's Language was accepted into the collection of the Library of Congress. Stories about Henry appeared in People magazine and on CNN, and a New York independent film company has written the screenplay for a movie about his extraordinary life.
National Literacy Program
At a visit to a local 3rd-grade classroom, Henry implored the children to "never give up on your education. Take it as far as you can, and k-e-e-p readin'!"
As a result of the student's enthusiastic response, his family decided to send the book on a journey and created the Port-to-Port Literacy program.
Smith explains that the book is traveling from state to state, spending one week with each classroom before it moves on, accompanied by a map of the United State and a sticker to be placed on the state it just visited. One book is also donated to the school's library. The journey is being tracked on the Port-to-Port page of the website, which includes photos and fan mail.
"It's on its fourth state and then once it visits all 50 states, we'll send it to the White House to be signed by the president," Smith says, "and then we'd really like to go internationally [with the program]."
The women say sales of the book and other related products on the website will be used to move the book around the world and create other fun, interactive games that will inspire children to read.
"The courage it took and the tenacity to move forward is why my grandfather's story is such a powerful vehicle to learn to read and write, or teach literacy-he's an icon for that now," McLaughlin says. "That's the impetus to help anyone at any age-it's such a hopeful story."
The family of Capt. James Arruda Henry will be at Essex Books at Gather, 104 Main Street, Ivoryton, on Sunday, April 14 at 2 p.m. to talk about his book. Call the bookstore at 860-767-1707 for more information. In a Fisherman's Language is $16.95, softcover, available at Essex Books and other local bookstores or online at

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