Henry Franklin Winkler, 64, son of Jewish holocaust survivors, is best known for his role as the ultra-cool Fonzie in the "Happy Days” series of the 1970s and ’80s. He went on to various roles in TV, theater and film and to serve as a director. Lesser known is his interest in education (master’s degree of fine arts from Yale) and the challenge that shaped him most: dyslexia. He co-authored a series of children’s books about a fourth-grader with dyslexia, "Hank Zipzer: The World’s Greatest Underachiever,” and speaks out often about the learning challenge. He will be the keynote speaker at a benefit dinner Thursday in Oklahoma City for the Payne Education Center, which trains teachers to remediate dyslexia. Q. What was it like growing up with dyslexia? It’s frustrating. It is sad, because you’re watching everybody else get stuff with ease. You keep wondering, "Why, no matter how hard I study, can’t I get this?” Like a poisonous worm, it eats away at the child’s self-image. My parents were very strict, very short Germans (who) at that time didn’t understand there was such a concept as a learning challenge. We were constantly at odds all the time. I was grounded for most of my high school career. They were convinced if I stayed in my room Friday and Saturday night, if I was forced to do my homework, I would get it. (To them) it was just that I was being lazy. I could have studied geometry for the next 67 years and I wouldn’t get it. Q. How was your dyslexia discovered? A. When I was 31, and my stepson, Jed, was in the third grade, we took him to visit the Hopi Nation in Arizona. He couldn’t write a report. He could verbally tell us about the trip. When he wrote, it was smudgy. He erased a hole in the paper. We had him tested (for dyslexia). Everything they said to him, I went, "Oh my gosh, that sounds like me!” For the first time, I understood I wasn’t stupid. Q. Your diagnosis came after you were a success? A. I got the Fonz (role) when I was 28. I was still having trouble with reading, with math. I was tormented by the embarrassment of not being able to read the script out loud in front of the cast. Reading was majorly important in the profession I chose, and it was as difficult as climbing Mount Everest with no clothes. Q. How did you cope? A. You learn to work with it. You can negotiate your learning challenges. You can learn to incorporate them. If you want something, you work a little harder than the average guy. A lot of times you hide it. You learn to compensate, then you learn strategies that allow your brain to function the best it can function. It’s not like you’re going to take steel and bend it. The wiring is the wiring. You take the way you learn and you find strategies to promote that. I didn’t know that when I was growing up. Q. Did anything positive come from your struggle? A. I used humor as a child. You have to excel at something because it’s important to feel good about yourself. It forces you to confront it. It forces you to figure out a creative way to get the same material other people get with ease. You realize, "Maybe I would never have been able to achieve everything I have done without my dyslexia.” It was my very dyslexia that pushed me forward. I became a success, but still, reading is very difficult for me. Every book I read is a triumph. Math is still difficult. Spelling is out of the question. I can’t even sound the word out. I didn’t have the ability to sound it out phonetically. Until about three years ago, computers were out of my range. I sent an e-mail for the first time three years ago. It took me two years to figure out how to do spell-check. Q. Was the Fonz an albatross or a blessing? A. After everything is said and done, it’s a blessing. Is it true people think of me as the Fonz and that sometimes I don’t get an acting role because of that? Yes. But in total, the world was presented to me as a gift. I got to travel. I was knighted by the government of France. I won the Italian Emmy. I met some extraordinary people. I just came back from doing a play in England. I’ve been able to write these 16 novels of Hank Zipzer, which make kids laugh all over the world. Q. Are many children still struggling with undiagnosed dyslexia? A. Oh my God, so many children. Or if they are recognized, they are left in the dust because there is just not enough time or resources to pay attention to them. Children with a learning challenge have great gifts inside them. They need to be encouraged to dig them out and give them to the world. It’s shocking what nuggets of human gold there are to mine.
Henry Winkler to speak about dyslexiaPayne Education Center is holding a dinner April 23. Henry Winkler is the guest speaker. He will be talking about dyslexia. It will be held at the Skirvin Hilton hotel and is by invitation. For more information, call Karen Mather, 833-3122.