WWII Veteran Wins Battle Against Lifelong Foe
The following video link connects to a March 1, 2013 “Steve Hartman on the Road” CBS Sunday Morning News interview with an 89-year-old successful veteran/business man from Cookson, Oklahoma who kept his illiteracy a secret for 80 years. It is with absolute familiarity and great appreciation for this powerful and emotional story that we share it in honor of the men and women with similar stories whose lives have touched ours and who live in CVABE’s service areas of Washington, Orange and Lamoille Counties.
Click here to view the video
(CBS News) COOKSON, Okla. -- Inside a single-wide in Cookson, Okla., a tortured soul lives alone.
"It's a hard life, let me tell you," says 89-year-old Ed Bray. "You ain't never lived hard until you go through what I've been through."
Bray served in World War II. He was at Normandy on D-Day, has two purple Hearts and more than a dozen other medals. But to this day, he still can't even read what they're for -- not because it's too painful, but because he simply can't read.
"The toughest thing that ever happened to me in my life was not being able to read," he says.
Illiteracy can be that damning.
"I've covered this up for 80 years," he says. "Nobody in this town knows I can't read."
Until he retired, Ed worked a civilian job at an Air Force base refueling planes. A coworker helped him with the forms and whatnot. At home, his wife covered for him for 62 years until she died in 2009. Today, Ed manages okay, but the soldier in him still refuses to surrender.
"I want to read one book," he says. "I don't care if it's about Mickey Mouse. I want to read one book before I die."
Over the years, Ed says many people have tried to school him, but invariably either the teacher or the student would get frustrated and give up. Then, a few months ago, a friend suggested he see a professor of reading education at Oklahoma's Northeastern State University.
"He told me I was wasting my time," says professor Tobi Thompson. "And I said, 'Well, we'll just sit and chat a couple times a week, is that okay?'"
She says eventually their weekly talks gave way to flash cards.
"And everything started clicking," Ed says.
He got pretty good at the sight words, but the real breakthrough came just last week, when at the age of 89, Ed Bray read a book about George Washington.
"It gave me goose bumps and it still does. It still does," Thompson says.
"It just makes me feel good," Ed says.
He's read three more since, and though they're just third-grade-level biographies, each one has the same dramatic ending.
"Can you believe you read that?" Tobi asks a teary Bray.
Each one has the same moral takeaway for anyone who thinks they're too old to do something.
"Get in there and learn, baby. Now! 'Cause you ain't going to learn in that pine box," Bray says.
Just learned to read and already a poet.
By Steve Hartman
Photo CBS News
March 1, 2013
© 2013 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Closing a Chapter: Mary Leahy Ends Career at CVABE
Pages turn, chapters end, books close, and Mary Leahy — a woman who has dedicated her life to literacy in central Vermont — knows that better than most.
On Tuesday, Leahy plans to put the proverbial “period” at the end of her 37-year career with Central Vermont Adult Basic Education. The Marshfield woman’s name has become synonymous with the organization where she’s worked for nearly four decades.
And Leahy will tell you she’s treasured every minute of it.
“I’m surprised I’m leaving,” Leahy said during a Friday afternoon interview at CVABE’s office on Washington Street in Barre. “This is what I am because the work is every bit at the center of my heart.”
For those unfamiliar with CVABE, “the work” involves providing “free, individualized and confidential academic services” to folks who range in age from 16 to 90-something.
Many are high school dropouts, some are immigrants struggling to learn English, and still others are challenged by a growing “digital divide” that didn’t exist back in 1975 when a much younger Leahy ditched her job as a high school art teacher to try something completely different.
Seated in an armchair located in the shadow of a papier mache version of Barre’s “Stonecutter” memorial — this one holding a book in an outstretched hand, instead of a hammer at his side — Leahy said she has never regretted enlisting as a foot soldier in one of the earliest fronts in the “War on Poverty.”
“When this job opened up, I went for it and it’s grabbed every single bit of imagination that I have,” she said. “It has been endlessly interesting and incredibly rewarding.”
It was also real work, according to Leahy.
“Back then all of us were working out of our cars and going here and there and everywhere,” she recalled. “I’ve tutored in barns, I’ve tutored in churches, I’ve tutored in restaurants … wherever people were and (wherever they) felt comfortable.”
Leahy’s initial assignment was to expand the then-loose-knit, Barre-based program into five communities in Washington, Orange and Lamoille counties.
“That meant literally going through the hills and knocking on doors and saying: ‘This is a program, it’s free, and do you know anybody … who would find it helpful?’” she recalled.
Those trips, Leahy said, were as much a search for “students” as they were an attempt to recruit volunteers, whom, she is quick to note, have long been the backbone of CVABE.
That outreach paid off, according to Carol Shults-Perkins, who joined CVABE two years before Leahy and is the other half of the organization’s long-standing “executive team.”
“We’ve been delivering, and committed to delivering community-based services here in central Vermont for more than 40 years now, but it really was Mary (Leahy) who began – community by community, town hall by town hall, library by library — engaging individual community members … and ensuring that community partnership and community participation has been part and parcel of the community-based services we provide.”
According to Shults-Perkins, who will soon assume the role as CVABE’s first executive director, the thought of running the organization without Leahy sharing the helm is going to take some getting used to.
“We have worked as a team for 35 years,” she said. “You can’t replace Mary (Leahy).”
Shults-Perkins won’t get any argument from Newberry resident and Vermont Poet Laureate Sydney Lea. Lea, an 18-year member of CVABE’s board of directors and its current president, thinks highly of the woman who recruited him during a chance encounter in a hospital parking lot.
“This has been way beyond a job for Mary (Leahy); it’s really a vision of humanity that she’s been dedicated to,” Lea said.
“I have an admiration for her that is pretty close to boundless,” he added, noting when he had to pick someone to install him as poet laureate last year, he turned to Leahy.
“She (Leahy) was the first person who came to mind,” he said. “No fellow poets, no academics, just Mary.”
A soft-spoken, silver-haired woman, with kind eyes and a tendency to deftly shift the focus of a conversation away from herself, Leahy speaks passionately about the importance of adult education, the courage of those who avail themselves to the services CVABE provides, and the commitment of an ever-changing cadre of volunteers who “find the time in their busy schedules to make a difference.”
It’s a recipe that works, according to Leahy, who spent one of her last days on the job pitching the merits of a program that has been her life’s work.
“We’re really the earliest of early ed(ucation) programs,” Leahy said. “If parents are really important to their children’s academic success, then for the parents who missed out on their own education, it stands to reason their child is not going to be on an equal playing field with other kids … That’s where we come in.
“If we can place ourselves in the public imagination as part of the warp and weave of the entire fabric of education, then we’re there for people whose time is right,” she said. “When they’re ready to learn (and) they want to learn, we’re here to help.”
Leahy said she is in the process of sifting through an office filled with notes, letters, and student work that underscore the life-changing nature of a basic education.
“It’s like a memory tunnel,” she said. “I’m unearthing all these wonderful things.”
One was a note from a then-newly computer literate woman who thanked her CVABE teacher for helping her master modern technology.
“She was 90,” Leahy said of the woman.
Although Leahy believes it is time for her to retire from CVABE, she said she won’t be going far and will likely add her name to the organization’s roster of volunteers.
“I’ll be around,” she said.
Leahy will also be missed, according to Lea, who penned a poem — “Her Eyes” — that he read at her recent retirement party.
Here is what Lea wrote:
— for Mary Leahy, on her Retirement
I asked your friends about your eyes — what color
They were, in a few short words. The answers ranged
From what I’d expect, like sparkling, penetrating,
To ones that were anything but: the earliest green
Of spring, said one, another brook trout green.
And yet the words they used around the colors
They’d chosen made a chorus: compassion, kindness,
Acceptance, faithfulness, honor. What can I add?
Only that in my knowing and loving you
These years, I’ve beheld within those eyes a shine
That none of us will ever quite describe:
A certain mystery flicker born of watching
Pain for years yourself, and from its kindling
In them what we, in our own crude ways, name hope.
- Sydney Lea, Vermont's Poet Laureate
Article by David Delcore
Photo byJennifer Langille
Published in the Times Arugus 04/30/2012