Mystic man's book was 98 years in the making

Mystic - When retired Stonington lobsterman Jim Henry was 91 he decided it was time he taught himself how to read and write.

And now seven years later, at the age of 98, Henry is a published author.

On Wednesday afternoon, Henry signed copies of his just-released book, "In a Fisherman's Language," at Academy Point, the senior housing project where he lives. A larger public signing is being planned for December, and the book will be soon be available at www.fishermanslanguage.com.

The book is a collection of short stories such as the time he was unable to save a fellow fisherman who fell overboard, his time as professional boxer and his arrival by boat from Portugal with his parents. Many of the stories involve his career on the ocean.

The cover of the book, which is published by Fowler Road Press of North Stonington, is a close-up black and white photo of Henry's right hand as he writes on a piece of paper.

On Tuesday, the day before the signing, Henry was at the desk in his apartment.

He was beaming.

"I feel so good about doing this. I don't know what to do or what to say," he said. "I feel like I was just born."

In recent days, Henry said people who have read the first copies of the book have told him they can't believe they were now talking to the author.

"Here I am, nothing but a fisherman before and now everyone is looking up to me. It makes me feel so happy," he said.

Because he's worried about how his signature looks when he starts signing books, he said he's been working extra hard to perfect it.

Henry said he is especially thankful for all the people who have helped him achieve his goal of learning to read and write and then publishing his book.

One of these is Mark Hogan, a retired East Lyme English teacher who is a volunteer with Literary Volunteers of Eastern Connecticut. He spent many hours with Henry helping him read and write and edit the book.

"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," Henry said.

In the foreword to the book, Henry's oldest grandchild, Marlisa McLaughlin of Pawcatuck, said she not only learned about the sea from him but came to find that Henry is a gifted storyteller.

"The collection of stories which follows is the result of his extraordinary journey into literacy, and the following selection of memories reflect his natural approach to storytelling," she wrote.

Earlier this week she said her grandfather has the ability to inspire not only students but also other seniors and give them a sense of hope.

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.

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."

Henry 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.

So a few weeks ago, Henry finally wrote that letter. For Henry it's an achievement as important as the book.

"DEAR BOBBY. THIS IS YOUR UNCLE JIM. I KNOW THAT YOU MUST HAVE THOUGHT I FORGOT ALL ABOUT YOU BUT I WOULD LIKE TO THANK YOU. I COULD NEVER FORGET YOU BECAUSE OF THE WAY YOU SAID TO ME THAT YOU WOULD NOT TAKE A PHONE CALL FROM ME. I KNOW YOU MEANT WELL. YOU GAVE ME THE AMBITION TO ANSWER YOU. AND I THANK YOU. I WILL TRY MY BEST TO PLEASE ALL OF YOU THAT ARE HELPING ME. I THANK YOU ALL. J.H."

Henry said he was so proud of the letter that he framed it and hung it on the wall of his bedroom.

So what's in Henry's future?

He said he's considering writing more short stories about his life.

"I have so much more to write down," he said.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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