As a Portugese immigrant-turned-New England lobster boat captain, James Arruda Henry has a lifetime of stories to tell that he loves to share with the world. However, up until he reached the age of 90, one of his personal stories remained a hidden personal secret. As shocking as it may be, this successful lobster boat captain who raised a beautiful family and built his home with his own two hands was completely illiterate – at least until he entered the ninth decade of his life.
The fascinating story of Mr Henry’s life began in Portugal in 1914. As a young boy, he immigrated to the United States with his family and moved into a tenement building in Rhode Island and struck out to begin his path toward fulfilling the American Dream. Unfortunately, money was very tight in the Henry household and when James reached the age of 9, he had to quit school so he could work and help to support his family.
Taking whatever job he could get hired for, Henry started out in such positions as cutting concrete blocks and working in bakeries making bread, as well as several other odd jobs before getting into the lobster business. One of his fondest childhood memories took place around this time when his father gave him his first full dollar on the 4th of July. With the dollar burning a hole in his pocket, he went out and painted the town red 9-year-old style, splurging on apple pie and ice cream, as well as a string of firecrackers.
In his teenage years, Henry took a job aboard a lobster boat and soon worked his way up through the ranks, eventually becoming a captain. While he doing an excellent job of making his way in the world, all of his time spent working meant he could never resume his schooling and thus remained unable to read. He was deeply embarrassed by this, and strove to keep anyone else he knew from knowing about it. It was when James was going in for his driver’s license test that his secret shame first presented a public problem. Unable to read the application, all he was able to do was sign his name at the top. A friend who happened to come along with him told the inspector that he was in the presence of a “Lobster King”(1) and that was good enough for the written application to be overlooked. James then proceded to pass the road test with flying colors.
Around this time, Henry became married to his wife Jean. All was well at first, but eventually Henry started having problems when it came time to pay bills and take care of the house expenses. Being unable to read, this situation presented him with much difficulty. Eventually, he resorted to asking his wife to go to secretary school so she could handle these matters, and that is when he would for the first time in his life reveal the secret of his illiteracy. However, it would also be the last time for the next six decades. When interviewed, he said, “I kept [the illiteracy secret] to myself. I was a pretty good bluffer in those days. Nobody ever knew except for my wife, Jean. We were married for 2 years when she found out.”(2)
Indeed, Jean would be the only person to find out for a very long time. Henry, who by now had moved to Mystic, Connecticut, continued in his role as a respected lobster boat captain and found ways to get by without reading, even though it tore him up inside. The hardest moments, he stated, were in times where his illiteracy would rear its head publicly. When visiting restaurants, he could not read the menus and instead would have to just repeat what he heard someone else ordering. When he couldn’t hear them, he just went without a meal.(1)
After giving up on the idea of ever learning to read, Arruda was finally swayed when he heard the story of a grandson of a slave who taught himself to read at the age of 98. Being a spring chicken of only 90 at the time, Henry figured he could do the same. He would stay up all hours of the night just trying to get through a few simple words, attempting to decipher the alphabet, and trying to get through a full sentence in children’s books. Eventually desire proved a greater force than pride, and he soon enlisted the help of family members and was soon on his way to becoming an accomplished reader.
Sadly, his beloved wife Jean passed away when he was 96 years old and the resulting sadness caused him to stop reading, but only temporarily. Soon he was back at it again and had learned to read and had graduated on to learning how to write. After mastering signing his name and working on basic sentences, he rapidly got the hang of things and was soon writing quite skillfully. It was around this time that he was approached by a literacy volunteer, who, after hearing some of Henry’s personal anecdotes, insisted that he write a book.
This suggestion ultimately resulted in a book entitled In a Fisherman’s Language, which is an anthology of just a few of the amazing experiences that the former lobsterman has taken in during his lifetime. Within five months of its publishing, In a Fisherman’s Language had managed to sell over 3,000 copies. It is currently being circulated among elementary school libraries throughout the United States, with one copy in particular making its way from library to library, coast to coast. In addition to its hard-copy form, Henry’s autobiography is also available on many e-readers, such as the Amazon Kindle.
The now 98-year-old James Henry is now spending his days making appearances in different venues and giving motivational speeches, especially on the topic of literacy. When it comes to learning to read, he has the following words of wisdom to offer: “Don’t be afraid to go ahead and try it. It’s hard, but once you get the hang of it, you’ll enjoy it.”(2) With such energy, tenacity, and courage at the age of 98, the story of James Henry reminds us all that no matter what the challenge, if you approach with determination and desire, you can meet your goals.
1. Christofferson, John
At 98, Once Illiterate Lobsterman is an Author
Associated Press, March 29, 2012
Lobster Boat Captain Learns to Read at 90, Writes Book at 98
The Blaze, March 10, 2012