Stonington - An early 99th birthday celebration for Mystic author James Henry, thrown by a local third-grade class on Friday, also included the launch of a cross-country literacy initiative.
The third-graders from Ledyard Center School have been Henry's friends since reading his book, "In A Fisherman's Language," which Henry wrote after learning to read and write when he was in his mid-90s.
Wearing shirts screen-printed with Henry's picture and the words, "Mr. Henry says Keep Reading!", 17 students held balloons and clutched birthday gifts for Henry.
At 92 years old, Henry revealed his illiteracy and began the process of learning to read and write, a journey that eventually led him to write his autobiography.
Henry visited the students at their school in January. Ever since, he has been their inspiration - so much so that they decided to send one copy of the book on a journey to one school in each of the 50 states to share his message.
The book is now on its way to a second-grade classroom in Berkeley, Calif., along with a map the class will mark with a sticker before sending it on to the next state. Each class will choose where to send the book and map next. After the book's 50-state journey is complete, President Barack Obama plans to send it to other countries.
Because Henry had visited the students at school, they decided to return the visit. They were so anxious to see Henry at his Academy Point home on Friday morning they couldn't stand still.
"He has such an amazing memory for a 98-year-old man," said Sasha Oakes, 9. "Some of his stories are sad, others are surprising and others are suspenseful. We've all learned how inspiring he is. He's always telling us to keep believing in ourselves and keep reading."
When Henry was in third grade his alcoholic father forced him and his brother to quit school so they could shovel trash and work other odd jobs. They would hand over their earnings to their father, and if they complained they would be beaten. This story and more is recounted in the book.
"He tells a lot about his life," said Jada Johnson, 8. "He's had a long life, but we love his stories even though they aren't all happy ones."
Throughout his 98 years, Henry worked as a Stonington lobster boat captain and boxed professionally. He worked at Electric Boat, served in the National Guard, did carpentry and plumbing and designed and built his own home in Stonington. He also helped found the annual Blessing of the Fleet ceremony, which he ran for years.
He has been known to say he felt as rich as a prince when he learned to read and write.
"After nine decades of hiding and feeling ashamed he is now finding a part of himself he always knew he could develop," said Henry's granddaughter and marketing manager Marlisa McLaughlin of Pawcatuck. "He's finding himself. ... His life has been laid out for the public to see, and they feel his journey and they understand it."
She said that after being married for two years to his wife, Jean, he admitted that he was illiterate.
Surrounded by smiling students on Friday, Henry struggled to keep from crying, but his emotions got the best of him when the students began handing him birthday gifts, one after another.
"They really are my family," Henry said. "These kids mean the world to me and I wish I had more money to share with them, but it's not about money. It's about love, and they've got all of it."
His birthday gifts included a book, "In a Third-Graders Language," filled with letters written to him by the class, a pack of pencils and a journal.
"I'm glad I inspired you kids to believe in me," said Henry, who turns 99 on April 19. "I'm very glad for that. This is hard to believe, I tell you.
"You kids put me right on top of everything."