The Fabulous Famous Dyslexic…Henry Winkler

May 14, 2008

Listen to audio HERE!

Mother’s Day, 2008 will go down in my books as one really cool day! Ironically, I was not with my children. Instead, I was in Andover, MA at a book signing with Henry Winkler (a.k.a. THE FONZ from Happy Days). For those of you who didn’t realize, he is also a best-selling author and among the ranks of many other extremely talented famous dyslexics.

I really didn’t know what to expect, but I am a huge fan of Mr. Winkler’s best-selling book series, Hank Zipzer – The World’s Greatest Underachiever, and I saw this as a great opportunity to meet a man who has gone above and beyond with respect to shining light on dyslexia – both its realities/difficulties and its gifts/talents. Based on the wonderful character, Hank Zipzer, a 4th grade boy with dyslexia, Winkler’s 14-strong series of chapter books are mostly autobiographical.

Having arrived at the function an hour and a half early, I was excited to be right at the front of the line. People started assembling and the buzz of excitement was growing. In one way or another, Henry Winkler had touched the life of each person in line…either with his acting, producing, writing, or other experience!

As people around me were sharing their stories, we all were surprised to see Henry Winkler, himself, walking toward us – happy to see the crowd. He introduced himself to most everyone, taking pictures and shaking hands with awed fans on the sidewalk. No sneaky back-door entrances for him…as he was ushered in by staff, he thanked everyone for coming and walked through the front door.

This was a good sign, and things just kept getting better! Inside, Henry Winkler entered the stage-front area of the town hall to a huge round of applause. Dressed in jeans, a blue blazer, pink tie, and casual shoes, he hopped up on the stage and introduced himself. His in-person energy is FUNNY, warm, approachable, and very candid!

He started off by saying,

“I stand before you being an actor, a director, a producer, [and author]. I am a husband, a father to three children […] and I am in the bottom 3% in this country academically.”

Despite this jaw-dropping comment, his delivery was with such grace, humility, and humor, that it was a clear demonstration that academic success is NOT the only measure of greatness!

He spoke of his life growing up in New York – the same apartment building where Hank Zipzer lives. He talked about his real-life teacher (also a character in his books) who, unfortunately, always called Winkler lazy and not working to his potential. He spoke of his parents, who didn’t understand him or his academic difficulties.

Winkler was 31 years old when he found out that he was dyslexic…having spent most of his life believing that he was “dumb.” His story is similar to many dyslexic adults…a huge percentage of which are undiagnosed even now.

When his son started showing signs of difficulty in school, they decided to have him tested for a learning disability. As the results came back and they learned more about dyslexia, Winkler had the realization that they were not only diagnosing his son, but were also describing HIM!

He finally had a name…he was NOT STUPID, he was NOT LAZY, he WAS trying to live up to his potential. He was DYSLEXIC!

Winkler half-jokingly described his definition of dyslexia as:

  • You spend 1/3 of your time trying to figure it out.
  • You spend 1/3 of your time trying to figure out why you CAN’T figure it out, and
  • You spend 1/3 of your time trying to cover up your shame and humiliation for not keeping up.

He continued on to reveal that his natural talents, dreams, extreme hard work, and personality were attributes that enabled him to put one foot in front of the other, every day, to get where he wanted to be. He believes that this potential lives within everyone! He went on to say,

If you will it, it is not a dream. I now have found in my life that that is a phrase that makes the world turn on its axis. If you will it, it is not a prayer. What you want, if you hold it in your brain, and you never let your dream go, and put one foot in front of the other…if you will it, it is not a dream. There is no reason you cannot have whatever it is you are imagining.

Every human being who has a learning challenge – how you learn has NOTHING to do with how brilliant you are. Because you learn differently, it does not mean that you don’t have GREATNESS inside of you! Every one of you has GREATNESS inside of you and your job is to figure out what your gift is and give it to the world…and the world cannot wait to see what you give…I know I can’t!

Each progression in his career, each journey to a new level, was originally something he felt he couldn’t do…didn’t know how. But by putting one foot in front of the other, found out he COULD and DID learn how. When his agent suggested that Winkler write children’s books about his dyslexia, he thought that he could NEVER do that. It took two years before he decided that it was a possibility, and agreed to meet with his co-writer, Lin Oliver. They are now working on their 15th book. Reflecting on his journey, Winkler said,

“I said I could never do this. I said, ‘It is impossible…I have nothing to say.’ …You put one foot in front of the other – it is AMAZING what you can figure out…what you can accomplish. You don’t even KNOW what you can accomplish until you try it. Never say never!”

There were many times throughout his speech that were incredibly inspiring. There were many dyslexic children in the audience, and he gave special care to directing much of his speech toward them. He answered questions and was amazingly open and candid about his experiences.

There were also many times throughout his speech where I could corrolate what he was describing to classic disorientation symptoms– and wished so much that I could tell him that there is an easy way to control them! All throughout the Hank Zipzer books, there are descriptions of disorientation … Hank can’t figure out WHY he can’t seem to get it…WHY he can’t remember the spelling words he studied for…WHY reading is so hard…! As a Davis® Dyslexia Correction facilitator, I would love to see Hank have a Davis® program and feel the effects of having tools to help him!

At the very end of his absolutely wonderful talk, once again I was first in line – this time for an autograph! There were so many people there…he was not going to personalize any of the autographs (per the staff). I gave him my book and awkwardly said, “YAY! I get to be first!” As he signed my brand new Hank Zipzer book (#14), I pulled a copy of the book, The Gift of Dyslexia, out of my bag and in the chaos and rush from the crowd, I only managed to say a few quick words about it. He accepted the book graciously. I’d be crazy to think that he doesn’t already have a LIBRARY of books that have been given to him…but I dare to dream.

I left knowing that I would always remember this event that FAR surpassed anything I was expecting…and, my dream that Henry Winkler will read The Gift of Dyslexia (a book that has changed the lives of so many of the people he is also trying to reach) continues. In true Henry Winkler style, I can’t wait to hear what he thinks about it! 🙂

Oh, and when I got home and checked out his autograph? He DID personalize it! He wrote: “You are 1st! – Henry Winkler” Very cool!
Thank you, Henry Winkler, for being such an amazing, open, honest, talented, funny, and, of course, FAMOUS dyslexic.

Thanks, too, to the Andover Bookstore for hosting this wonderful event! For more information on the Davis program or New England Dyslexia Solutions, visit, email, or call 978-337-7753.

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