ANNAPOLIS -- Jimmy Presley won an award yesterday and shook the governor's hand. He was cited for learning to read. But the award was really for courage.
It's not easy, after all, for a man in his mid-40s, a construction superintendent who makes a good living, to admit he can't read after hiding his illiteracy for decades.
And it's harder still for a dyslexic, seventh-grade dropout to overcome his handicap.
But that's what James R. Presley, 45, a resident of Ijamsville in Frederick County, has done over the past year in the state's Literacy Works program. Yesterday, he was one of 15 Marylanders who have excelled in state training programs to be honored at a luncheon here.
"The award doesn't mean that much to me. The self-confidence means more than anything else," Mr. Presley said before the ceremony at an Annapolis hotel.
But afterward, he glowed with pride.
"I really enjoyed it," he said, singling out the keynote address by Ira C. Magaziner, chairman of the Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, who asserted that U.S. education was neglecting the 75 percent of Americans who didn't go to college.
J. Henry Butta, chairman of the Governor's Employment and Training Council, said people like Mr. Presley must learn to read if the state's
economy is to thrive.
"We can't have the same number of Marylanders -- in the `D hundreds of thousands -- who are not literate enough to perform well in the workplace. As a businessman, that's where I come from," said Mr. Butta, who is president and chief executive officer of the Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co.
Mr. Presley, by his own account, was an early casualty of the educational system.
He spent his childhood at the back of the classroom, branded a "slow learner" and gradually forgotten. In seventh grade, he dropped out. When friends went to school, Jimmy Presley was out hunting squirrels and rabbits in his native Prince George's County.
"They didn't teach me at all," Mr. Presley recalled yesterday. "I was slow, and they didn't want to bother. Since they wasn't bothering, I wasn't bothering either."
It took more than three decades to get Jimmy Presley back in the classroom. He was making "good money" working for Robert K. Wormald Inc., a construction company in Frederick. Most of the time, he managed to mask his inability to read, but in private moments he "used to get so frustrated, I would throw the book across the room."
Deep down, Mr. Presley wanted to read, and when he heard a radio spot shortly after Christmas in 1989 advertising Frederick County's adult basic education classes, part of the Literacy Works program, he decided to give himself the gift of reading.
"It's hard to explain. We all have weaknesses, and mine happened to be reading. It was something to conquer in life, something to make me a better person," he said.
When Mr. Presley first came to class at Linganore High School, said Richard Ramsburg, director of the Frederick County program, he "tested right on the bottom."
"I couldn't read three-letter words like cow or rat," Mr. Presley said.
Now, after a year of twice-weekly, two-hour classes and private tutoring, Mr. Presley recently read the front page of the Frederick newspaper aloud to Mr. Ramsburg.
"He's the most determined person I ever met," the educator said.
Mr. Presley said trying to break through the barrier of his illiteracy was "unbearable."
"All your emotions come out, all your lack of self-confidence. It's like the devil comes out, saying, 'You can't do this, throw that book away.' But now I've conquered that fear," he said.
George Bittrolff, Mr. Presley's lifelong friend and hunting companion, accompanied his buddy to the ceremony yesterday.
"This last year has been unbelievable," Mr. Bittrolff said. "Jimmy used to call me up at night and read to me on the phone, he was
so excited. Jimmy's become a lot more self-con
fident and, in a lot of ways, even happier. He's come a long, long way."
Mr. Presley, a Baptist, has begun to read the Bible.
jTC "I want to really study the Bible," he said. "That motivated me. I think we should all study the Lord a little more. We don't give him enough time in our life."
And he recently bought one of his three children a sports car. For many parents, that in itself would be a point of pride. But Mr. Presley was proud of something else.
"When I went to get the tags for my daughter's car, I filled out all the papers by myself -- for the first time in my life," he said.
Honors given in training projects
These Marylanders were honored yesterday for excelling in five state training programs:
Jean Fallon, Catonsville: She left the welfare rolls and became an $8-an-hour office clerk.
Elsa Miles, Grasonville: She overcame alcohol and drug addictions, got off welfare and became a Queen Anne's County alcohol services counselor.
Bridget Scott, Baltimore: She beat her addictions, left the welfare rolls and got a job at a Columbia nursing home.