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Henry Winkler gives W.Va. kids two words to live by

Parkersburg News and Sentinel photo by Evan Bevins Author and actor Henry Winkler answers a question during a press conference at the Jackson County Board of Education office Thursday between programs for county third- through fifth-graders at the district’s high schools.
Parkersburg News and Sentinel photo by Evan Bevins
Author and actor Henry Winkler answers a question during a press conference at the Jackson County Board of Education office Thursday between programs for county third- through fifth-graders at the district’s high schools.

RAVENSWOOD, W.Va. — Henry Winkler may be best known to many as Arthur “Fonzie” Fonzarelli, but it’s his real-life role as an author that’s winning him a new generation of fans and allowing him to share a message close to his heart with children around the world.

“Outside of my children and grandchildren – and I love my career as an actor; it’s what I dreamt of doing- I’d have to say I’m proudest of my books,” Winkler said Thursday during a press conference at the Jackson County Board of Education office in Ripley.

The actor, author, producer and director spoke to reporters between presentations to third-through-fifth-graders in Jackson County’s eight elementary schools. The morning event was at Ripley High School, the afternoon session at Ravenswood High. On Thursday night, he addressed a sold-out crowd at the Armed Forces Reserve Center in Millwood for the Jackson County Community Foundation’s annual celebration.

Winkler made his first visit to West Virginia courtesy of the foundation and the Ripley-based Dickirson Corporation to discuss his best-selling children’s book series, “Hank Zipzer: The World’s Greatest Under-achiever,” with students and community members.

Winkler co-writes the books with Lin Oliver and bases them on his own experiences in school, struggling to learn with undiagnosed dyslexia. He said through the books and his speeches to children, he wants kids to realize they can achieve great things.

“There is not one way to accomplish anything. There is your way,” he said.

The foundation and the Jackson County Board of Education purchased a set of Hank Zipzer books for all 48 third-, fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms in the district. A “Hooked on Hank” reading program was launched Aug. 22, with children encouraged to read the books and activities in art, reading, technology and more centered on the series.

Students have been recording the time they spend reading Hank Zipzer since. Jane Winters, regional manager of affiliates for Our Community’s Foundation, announced Thursday that more than 288,000 minutes had been logged as of Monday.

“They love it,” said Gilmore third-grade teacher Sunny Enoch. “The readability is really easy for them” and the humor draws them in.

During the afternoon program, Winkler urged students from Gilmore Elementary and Ravenswood Grade School not to let struggles in school sap their confidence.

“No matter how hard school is, it has nothing- it has nothing- to do with how brilliant you are,” he said.

Winkler used humor to tell students about his struggles in school, but didn’t hold back the hurt and frustration he felt either.

“I was bad in math. I was bad in English. I was bad in history,” he said. “I was great at going home.”

Winkler said he was told by teachers and even his parents he was stupid, lazy and not living up to his potential.

“I couldn’t compute. I couldn’t remember what I was reading,” he said.

Then, Winkler showed the students a picture of himself at the Smithsonian Museum when he donated the jacket he wore as Fonzie on “Happy Days” and brought out the medal bestowed on him by Queen Elizabeth II as an Honorary Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire for his work with children facing learning challenges.

“I was told I would never achieve. Holy moly!” he said. “If I can do it, all things are possible.”

Winkler said he still has to overcome obstacles in adulthood. When somebody suggested he write children’s books, he wasn’t sure he could do it.

“I was smart enough to say, ‘I’ll just try,'” he said.

Winkler teamed with children’s author Lin Oliver, and they released the first Hank Zipzer book, “Niagara Falls, Or Does It?” in 2003.

“We go over every word together,” Winkler said. “The emotion of Hank Zipzer is very true, and I relive it as we’re writing scenes.”

Winkler had to persevere once again when shopping a Hank Zipzer TV show and not finding any takers in the U.S.

“They said, ‘We love Hank. He’s so funny. Could you make him just a little bit less dyslexic?'” he recalled of one meeting.

Eventually, the series found a home on the BBC. Winkler plays teacher Mr. Rock, based on an educator whose kind words have stuck with him, and recently finished shooting the second season.

“I live by two words: tenacity and gratitude,” he said. “Tenacity gets you where you want to go, and gratitude keeps you from getting angry along the way.”

At the press conference, Winkler said children know when they’re struggling or not doing well and they don’t need adults to remind them over and over.

“The most important thing is we as adults make sure the child’s self-image is buoyed at all times,” he said. “Our job is to buoy them and not teach toward a test, if I may be so bold.”

West Virginia Superintendent of Schools Michael Martirano heard Winkler’s morning presentation to elementary students at Ripley High School. He said the word “sympatico” came to mind.

“To use his expression, ‘I can’t wait to see what you become,'” Martirano said of students.

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