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At age 98, a new chapter begins

By Joe Wojtas

Publication: The Day

Published May 08. 2011 4:00AM   Updated May 08. 2011 12:30PM

Mystic - When Jim Henry was in third grade his alcoholic father made him and his brother quit school so they could shovel trash and work other odd jobs. They would hand over their earnings to their father. If they complained, they would be beaten.

As an adult, Henry prided himself on being a hard worker. He carved out a long career as a Stonington lobster boat captain. He did stints as a professional boxer, worked at Electric Boat, served in the National Guard, did carpentry and plumbing and designed and built his own home in Stonington. He helped found the annual Blessing of the Fleet ceremony and ran it for years.

But there was something Jim Henry couldn't do - read or write.

Over the years, Henry 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 scratch out his name just well enough to get by.

“I was a good bluffer. There's no question about that. But I was so ashamed of myself. I couldn't even tell these kids about it," he said of his two granddaughters, Alicia Smith and Marlisa McLaughlin of Pawcatuck, whom he and his wife, Jean, raised from an early age.

Then seven years ago, at 91, Henry was inspired by the story of the grandson of a slave who wanted to earn his high school diploma by learning how to read and write at 98.

"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.' "

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 went through reams of thickly lined paper and would often fall asleep holding a book.

Now 98, Henry spends one afternoon a week in his apartment at Academy Point writing his autobiography with the help of Mark Hogan, a retired East Lyme English teacher who is a volunteer with Literary Volunteers of Eastern Connecticut. The book is titled "In a Fisherman's Language."

"I'm trying my damnedest to do what I should have done before. I want to learn enough to write a letter to someone," Henry said. "Once I learn what I should, I'll stop. Until then I'll keep working."

Born in Somerville, Mass., he moved with his large family to the Azores, and then when he was about 10 to Bristol, R.I. Henry came to Stonington Borough when he was 18. He worked in the former Atwood Machine Co. during the day and frequented the local dance halls at night.

When he tried his hand at lobstering, it didn't take him long to realize that he was "making peanuts" compared to the boat owners, so he bought his own boat.

He later would sell that boat to pay for his wedding to Jean. He would go on to own four more boats and continued to haul lobsters until he was in his mid-80s.

Henry can describe in great detail the jobs he's had, what his duties were and how much he earned. He prides himself for never being afraid of working hard to make a living.

At one point he was lobstering and working at Electric Boat, slipping in just a few hours of sleep a day.

"I was a real worker. I'd always find a job," he said.

In his 20s, he boxed at the Norwich Armory and other venues to make extra money. The most he ever made for a bout was $25.

"I'm still waiting to get paid for some of those other fights," he said, laughing. Henry said he only knew how to read or write "a few words here and there" yet was able to get by because he had "a very good sense of common sense."

But he always wished he had earned a high school diploma.

The turning point came five years ago when McLaughlin, his granddaughter, told a friend about Henry's desire for a diploma and the friend gave her an excerpt from "Life is So Good" by George Dawson who, like Henry, had to work from an early age and could not attend school.

Inspired, Henry began writing his name over and over until he was finally happy with how it looked. He then began to teach himself to read. McLaughlin bought him the MacMillan Children's Dictionary. Two relatives who are teachers would occasionally work with him.

But when his wife died in 2004, Henry was so depressed that he put his quest on hold. It was not until he moved to Academy Point two years ago that he started reading and writing again.

About 14 months ago, his granddaughters took him to Literacy Volunteers to see if they could get him a tutor.

Hogan, who also lives in Mystic, said he had just finished tutoring another client when he received an email from Literacy Volunteers that the organization was looking for someone to work with Henry.

Hogan jumped at the chance.

"He's a year older than my dad would have been if he lived past 47," Hogan said of Henry, whom he affectionately calls "the captain."

"I'm amazed at what he's done. Everyone I tell about him says, 'No way, you're kidding.' I don't think I could have done it myself. He's incredibly bright, resourceful and funny, although some of his stories are things we can't repeat," Hogan said, chuckling. "He's done so many things in his life that my life seems sheltered."

Henry writes out his chapters for his book longhand and Hogan then types them into his computer so they can be edited.

At a tutoring session last week, the two men sat next to a small kitchen table. Henry cradled a binder in his still strong forearms and read aloud from a few of the 60 pages of his autobiography.

"Manuel was out of World War I and he was happy to get out of the war. Things like that there I can remember. I think he saw enough - the way the war was and everything - he had enough of the war," Henry read. "My mother always wanted to go to Portugal, but my brother was in the war here in the United States, then he was out of the war and he was working and everything and he wanted to go to Portugal but he was afraid if he went to Portugal, which was still at war, he would go to war because he was born in Portugal."

He said that when he began writing the book, "I could see myself back in Portugal like it was really happening."

Henry, who now reads at a sixth-grade level, occasionally would stumble over a word or two but would press on with Hogan's help.

"I'm trying to read too fast,'' an annoyed Henry said to Hogan at one point.

"Take it slow, Cap," Hogan told him.

Hogan, meanwhile, followed along on his laptop and suggested changes.

"This is a good story. But we need to clean it up a little and make it smoother," Hogan suggested.

The two men would stop to discuss changes, and why they were needed before moving on. Occasionally, as with most writers and editors, there was some debate.

Henry credits Hogan with being a big help.

"He put me in the position I'm in now," he said.

Henry hopes to self-publish what he has written later this year. And he plans to keep reading.

"I may not be a professor, but I'm learning. I'm still learning. Who knows? If I live long enough, maybe I will be a professor."

j.wojtas@theday.com

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