THE KIDS, AND there were plenty of them in the crowded auditorium, saw Henry Winkler as a brilliant and very funny speaker, a man who overcame dyslexia to become a successful actor, producer and director.
But when I looked at the stage at Calvert Hall College High School in Towson, I saw the character Winkler made famous: the Fonz, that leather-jacketed greaser of Happy Days. He's a quarter-century older now, silver-haired, a little wider at the waist. But still he's the Fonz. I expected Winkler to turn thumbs up and render Fonzie's patented "Aaayh!"
He didn't. After all, Happy Days, the top-rated TV series in the nation in the mid-1970s, was set in the 1950s and aired the last of 255 episodes in 1984, before most of these kids were born. Winkler has gone on to other pursuits, although he announced that the Fonz's leather jacket is in the Smithsonian.
Winkler, who will turn 56 the day before Halloween, was in town Wednesday to speak at the culminating event of Baltimore's first "Dyslexia Awareness Week." The event was sponsored by the Dyslexia Tutoring Program, which provides free tutoring to dyslexics who can't afford it, and to area schools that have programs for children with the learning disability. Dyslexia, a language-based learning disability, is characterized by difficulty reading. (The week was timed to coincide in part with last weekend's Baltimore Book Festival.)
Winkler struck a chord in an audience of dyslexic children and their parents and teachers when he described his rough times "getting through the world" as a youngster. He was told he was stupid, that he had brain damage. "My self-image was down around my ankles," he said.
"I felt stupid," said Winkler.
But he persevered. He graduated from high school after a struggle; he repeated one class four times. He channeled his energy into acting, graduating from Emerson College in Boston and the Yale School of Drama.
Winkler inspired the audience with aphorisms the likes of which would never have passed the lips of Arthur Fonzarelli:
If you will it, it is not a dream.
Everyone has a song. If you don't know what it is now, you will eventually.
If you understand you are powerful, you have a gift.
Your mind knows something. Your instinct, your inner self knows everything.
The energy we put out is the energy we get back.
Once we have peace of mind, we can have peace on Earth.
Winkler revealed more details of his struggle in the question-and-answer period. Children and adults lined up at microphones on each aisle. "When did you find out you were dyslexic?" came one of the first questions.
"When I was 31," said Winkler. "When I found out, I was angry." He had gotten well into adulthood without an explanation of why he "had so much trouble getting through the world."
All three of his children are dyslexic, Winkler said in response to another question. "We jumped on it right away."
Does he still have problems? "I have problems reading. Every book I read is a triumph." He buys only hard-cover books and likes thrillers, Winkler said. A dyslexic producer, he added, is a particularly challenged reader. "Sometimes you have to bulldoze your way through [a script]."
Does it get any easier? Winkler said he still worries about getting correct change in a store, "but as I've gotten older, the process has gotten easier."
Rebecca Stoecker, 10, of White Hall, had a simple question: Why does he have dyslexia? After complimenting Rebecca on her sweater, Winkler said he would defer to medical experts, "but I think it's the way the brain is wired, and we're all wired differently."
I was sitting in the second row, and about this time I turned around to look at more than 1,100 people. "They were all in the same boat," said Marcy K. Kolodny, director of the Dyslexia Tutoring Program.
By that, she meant that most in the audience could relate to Winkler's experiences. Some had been through the wars with educators unconvinced that dyslexia exists and determined to withhold services required by federal law. Rebecca Stoecker's older brother finally found the program he needed at Our Lady of Mount Carmel High School in Essex after a frustrating, years-long journey through several public and parochial schools.
He graduated in June and is now a student at Harford Community College.
I thought back to 1973, the year Winkler landed the Fonz role (on his 28th birthday), three years before he discovered he had dyslexia.
It also was the year a group of parents and visionary educators and psychologists organized the Jemicy School, Baltimore's first for dyslexic children.
You could have put that founding group in an ordinary classroom with room to spare. Wednesday's event at Calvert Hall nearly filled a large auditorium, and 10 schools, including Jemicy, joined in sponsorship. Plus a Dyslexia Awareness Week?
Unbelievable, a mere 28 years later!