Last Reader Standing: Archie Willard with Colleen Wiemerslage
Imagine being locked out of a house without any way to get in. Imagine living in a world that is more desolate than solitary confinement. Imagine feeling that you are worthless, stupid and made to feel that you do not match up to anyone else? Educators have a special job that they are privileged to do. Working with young minds and sharing their knowledge is not a right to me it’s a privilege and honor to help mold younger minds. Archie Willard lived within a vacuum so alone, so far away from those within his own age group as he entered kindergarten excited and hopeful but when reaching grade one that would all change. One teacher can take away a child’s spirit. Words are powerful and actions the same. When Archie tried to read he realized he could not blend the letters and sounds but no one bothered to figure out why? Elementary school proved difficult and many of the teachers thought he was a discipline problem when in reality he was frustrated and scared. From the start Archie was someone who would not give up, needed to develop faith in himself and heard a special little voice in his head telling him when things were tough and he was unsure: JUST DO IT!
The first chapter sets the tone in a positive and exciting way as First Lady Barbara Bush steps out on stage in 1994 and introduces Archie as the guest speaker. Learning that he was dyslexic was the beginning of his life and realizing that he could get help paramount. Standing at the podium and speaking to 2000 people took courage and strength and telling them that he was dyslexic and that he was a NEW READER a proud moment in his life.
This book is for everyone not just children and adults with learning problems but for educators, reading specialists, guidance counselors, principals, test coordinators and anyone that works with both adults and children with reading difficulties. Becoming more than just a spokesman and advocate took work, courage, persistence and drive. As we get to know him in Chapter One and hear Wanda, his wife’s words we learn how using his memory and his ability to remember facts helped him. But, first both Archie and his co-author Colleen Wiemerslage, flashback in time to his childhood and kindergarten which turned out fine but first grade would change it all and walking to school was the easiest part but dealing with Miss Anderson quite different. Feeling that Archie was behind and could not succeed she exiled him to the bottom of the class when she realized that he had difficulty processing sounds and letters. Never thinking to have him tested or finding another method of teaching him to read she made him scared, alone and even sent him to the coat closet with another child. Not only was that cruel but the closet was unheated. Hating school was a definite and what the teacher inflicted on him unforgiveable. I HATE SCHOOL am the center of Chapter 3 and learning that he had a handwriting problem added to the poor grades that he received. But, his mother could not read and his father stayed silent and just told him to do the best that he can. Not only did he hate school but recess too as he was ignored by most of his classmates and others were just plain mean. Within the darkness there was a ray of sunshine or light when his friends from his neighborhood invited him to play football, which would prove to be a catalyst for many great things to come. But, first dealing with Miss Brooks who used corporal punishment to exile him even further forcing his mother to explain to her why she would never do that again. His handwriting was messy and he felt that he was going to explode. But, Miss Mcllwane was different and she saw something in Archie what would allow him to do his best.
Eagle Grove High School was next and in his sophomore year he was nominated as class president. For the first time in his life he realized that he was more than just someone who could not read. The voice within his head said loud and clear: “Don’t be afraid, just do it.” HE DID!
Deciding to take a job with the Hormel Meat Packing Plant in Fort Dodge, Iowa would be his means of support for many years. Forgetting his higher goals and wanting to be someone special he hoped that he would succeed but this job was menial, repetitive but paid him fair wages, benefits and the company treated their employees fairly. Working from 7A.M. till around 4.P.M. with three breaks he wound up doing the same thing every minute of every day. Friendships formed, vacations in Mexico, meeting some nice single guys and girls and realizing that not everyone would accept him for what he could not do.
Rejections ran high when he met some girls and two would stand out as they wanted to marry him but learning about his disability sent them in another direction. Finding Wanda was a blessing and taking it slow, admitting his difficulties he not only had a wife but a best friend too. Archie and Wanda were blessed with a daughter named Kelli and thinking he was not good enough to be a father he soon would realize that reading and writing was important but father skills are inborn.
Archie would soon learn that he would do more than just work in a meatpacking factory and decided to run for city council. Serving on it for four years he managed to hide his problem and used his memory and powers of retention when giving speeches, speaking to other council members and learning that he was not stupid. Placing him on the Political Action Committee was the next step and helping to represent his union enabled him once again to talk and listen even though he could not read. How did he finally get help? When did he decide to leave the job he had for 31 years and confront his own demons and realize that he needed help to learn to read? Learning to drive a bus was next after realizing that the meat packing company was going to close and it was time to move on. But, how and where? From crop adjustor to figuring out how to fill out the forms, working on his spelling and a wife that was there for him every step of the way, Archie soared.
The author’s share how at 54 years old admitting he needed help and it was time to learn to read. The power of words, the electric energy of print and the fun of taking yourself to different places, worlds and reading about different people, characters, stories and more. Imagine not having this power. Reading is the power that allows us to make our own choices in life and although Archie could not read for so many years it has nothing to do with his intelligence. The little voice in his head of the guardian angel or a spirit guide that led him in the right direction when he thought everyone and everything was against him.
Bruce Jenner admitted that he was dyslexic and Archie took the bull by the horns, learned more about this disability and he has him to thank for his initial successes. Books about dyslexia were taken out of the library and Wanda read many. But, although he felt like he was stupid and his chest was pounding he finally made a call that would start the ball rolling and that little voice said: GET TESTED!
Teachers and tutors have a great impact on the lives of their students and one named Maxine would take the time, show him the way and guide him when he thought he was lost. Diagnosed with dyslexia and at age 52 he remembered being went to the back of the room when in first grade. Admitting out loud that he had a problem paramount. Would you admit that you had a reading problem and learn the importance of literacy and do something about it? Would you follow what Archie did? From getting involved in a wellness workshop where people spoke about many disabilities he was able to use it as an outlet to speak about himself. Facing a group of Special Ed students he was warned that they might not focus and listen. Wait until you read what happened and realize that sometimes-great things come when you least expect them. Learning about the Orton Dyslexia Society was monumental and becoming involved great. Asking one question would set things in motion: Where are all the dyslexic people? The answers came and the suggestions made, as he wanted to get more involved in the Orton society and help people deal with their challenges in their lives. Nominated to be on the board of the National Organization was step one. But, realizing that this was not the avenue to get learning disabled people involved Archie met a woman from the Learning Disabilities Association. His life change, he wanted people with reading problems to finally have a voice and the help and support they needed. Learning about The Third Dimension, which “refers to a way of communicating without using black and white or ye or know answers.” He never writes anything down. He remembers stories, practices them in his mind and tucks them away until needed.
Building relationships, finding different avenues and becoming the Adult Literacy coordinator for two counties in Iowa inspiring as Archie finally takes the spotlight in order to help others. He became a recruiter and worked with other recruiters called NEW READERS. This became a special group with potential New Readers and tutors. He learning more about the disability and went on to teach a class. Explaining in detail how the brain of the dyslexic person works just by telling it to them and using people as visuals made all the difference in the world to so many. For parents of learning disabled students he directed them to the Reading Center in Rochester, Minnesota to see Jean Osmond. Chapter 15 focuses on the members of the New Readers, speaking meeting others and then hoping to get funding. Chapter 16 enlightens readers about literacy in Russia and Chapter 17 being given a fellowship and deciding to attend the National Institute for Literacy in Washington. Traveling to Washington in 1996, learning more about his role as a fellow which was to collect information from literacy programs to see how “they are involving New Readers. Developing VALUE: VOICE of Adult Literacy United For Education was only the beginning. Feel the excitement; learn about Value, how they planned the six primary members and how they had a team and for an organization that would help New Readers. Receiving a National Award in 2010 but first the loss of his amazing and supportive wife Wanda. Rather than giving up he realized she would want him to go on.
Reading gave him courage, power and the feeling of success. Reading changed his life and he became a national figure even till this day. Living his dream. Never take a back seat and allowing himself to soar Archie still advocates for literacy and is definitely a role model for adults, young adults and children.
This is truly more than a five star book: Authors Archie Willard and Colleen O’Reilly Wiemerslage created a resource for teachers, parents, children, young adults, principals, test coordinators, guidance counselors and those that do educational testing. The Last Reader Standing: Archie Willard: You are truly an inspiration and I am honored to spotlight your book in a review. Archie Willard will never be locked out or alone ever again.
Fran Lewis: Just reviews