Published January 06. 2013 10:00AM Updated January 07. 2013 12:27AM
Stonington — It seemed only appropriate that Jim Henry died peacefully early Sunday morning at The William W. Backus Hospital surrounded by the two things that meant the most to him — his family and a good book.
Henry, the Stonington man who gained international acclaim when he learned to read at 91 and published his first book at 98, died shortly after his family had gathered around his hospital bed to read the book “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” to him. He was three months short of his 100th birthday.
“He’s been such a wonderful example of strength, dignity, pride, faith and good old fashioned hard work,” said his granddaughter, Marlisa McLaughlin, who said Henry had been suffering from pneumonia for the past week. “We realize how blessed we were to be his grandchildren.”
Henry, a former fisherman, taught himself to read and write after being inspired by the story of the grandson of a slave who also learned to read and write in his 90s.
“It changed him so much and made his life come together,” McLaughlin said. “He just loved books and loved literature.”
With the help of Mark Hogan of Literacy Volunteers of Eastern Connecticut, Henry wrote and published a collection of short stories about his life called “In a Fisherman’s Language” in 2011.
Henry received many accolades includes a congratulatory letter from President Barack Obama. His book was accepted into the collection of the Library of Congress, stories about him appeared in People magazine and on CNN and a New York independent film company was signed to make a movie about his life. But most of all he received letters from people around the world who said they had been inspired by him to learn to read and write. He became friends with a class at Ledyard Center School.
“He really wanted people to improve themselves, overcome their weaknesses and make changes,” McLaughlin said.
Hogan, a retired East Lyme teacher who lives in Mystic, said Sunday that the man he was assigned to tutor turned out to not only become his favorite client but a good friend.
“We had special kinship,” he said. “I can’t say enough about my friend. He will be missed. I’m just sorry he couldn’t make it to 100.”
Hogan called Henry an “amazingly brilliant man” even though he didn’t think so.
Hogan said he was surprised by the acclaim Henry received because he never thought the word would get out about him.
“But man did it ever take off. I was just along for the ride,” he said.
When Henry’s book was published in 2011, he said that becoming an author made him feel like he was just born.
“Here I am, nothing but a fisherman before and now everyone is looking up to me. It makes me feel so happy,” he said. “I have tears in my eyes when I go to bed at night and think about all the nice things that have happened to me lately.”
When Henry was a third-grade student, his father made him and his brother quit school so they could work odd jobs.
When he was 18 he moved to Stonington Borough, and he went on to not only captain a lobster boat, but also work at Electric Boat and serve in the National Guard. He became a skilled carpenter and plumber and even designed and built his own home in Stonington. He helped found the annual Blessing of the Fleet ceremony and ran it for years.
Over the years, he hid his illiteracy from friends and relatives by employing a variety of tricks, such as ordering what he heard someone else ask for when he went to a restaurant. He could write his name just well enough get by. He felt ashamed he never learned how to read.
Then, seven years ago, at 91, Henry was inspired after learning about the story of George Dawson, the grandson of a slave who wanted to earn his high school diploma by learning how to read and write at 98. Dawson went on to write the book “Life is So Good.”
“He had the same problem I did. It was identical. I figured if he could do it, I could do it. So I said, ‘I’ll try it,’” Henry told The Day in 2011.
He began by reading books designed for first-graders and spent countless hours practicing how to write, first the alphabet and his name, then small words.
He was also inspired by grand-nephew Bobby Henry, who when he learned about Henry’s desire to read and write told him he would no longer take phone calls from him. He wanted a letter. Henry finally wrote that letter.
Henry’s family is finalizing his arrangements and plans to start a literacy fund in his honor.
McLaughlin said Henry had been working on a second book right up until he died.
“One of the last thing he said to us, was a book gives you life,” she said.