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Struggles with reading didn't stop him from achieving, dyslexic actor tells crowd at school's annual fundraiser

REVIEW PHOTO: KELSEY OHALLORAN - Henry Winkler greets Park Academy Head of School Paula Kinney at a fundraiser for the school last week.Actor Henry Winkler has long captivated the public — as an enjoyably creepy dentist on “The Practice,” a bungling attorney on “Arrested Development” and that icon of smoothness on “Happy Days,” Fonzie.

Winkler also has built a reputation as a published author, not only for his tales of family and fishing in “I’ve Never Met an Idiot on the River,” but also with his children’s novel series, co-written with Lin Oliver, called "Hank Zipzer, the World's Greatest Underachiever." He's directed a variety of television series and movies, and was even an executive producer on major shows such as “MacGyver.”

Yet, what many people don’t realize is how hard Winkler had to fight for his varied accomplishments.

“If you want something, if you will it, you can do it,” he says.

Winkler, 70, struggled through high school and almost flunked out of Emerson College twice before finishing and pursuing his master’s at Yale School of Drama. While having his son tested, he discovered that he himself is dyslexic.

He’d thought he just wasn’t smart, he told The Review last week during the annual fundraising dinner and auction Park Academy. The private nonprofit school serves students with dyslexia and other language-learning challenges.

“I’m just so happy that this school exists,” Winkler says. “That’s what I’d like to say. I cannot begin to tell you how important it is.”

Dyslexia is a common learning challenge that relates to how the brain processes symbols, causing dyslexics to struggle with reading and spelling despite having normal or above-average intelligence.

Winkler says he wishes Park Academy had existed when he was younger so that he could have attended and let his self-esteem thrive.REVIEW PHOTO: KELSEY OHALLORAN - Park Academy founder Piper Park (left)) chats with TV celebrity Henry Winkler, while Head of School Paula Kinney beams.

“I would not have felt so stupid for so long,” Winkler says.

In a recent interview she did with Winkler an K103 Radio, Park Academy Head of School Paula Kinney said the actor suffered through the experience of being an undiagnosed dyslexic by being a class clown, something she said is very common for a boy with dyslexia. A girl, on the other hand, may “recede into a corner,” Kinney explained. She said difficulty comprehending language can be excruciating for dyslexic students during class exercises such as reading aloud in a circle.

Kids who come to Park Academy from all over the nation can relate to Winkler’s sometimes painful experiences, Kinney says, because many of them have been teased and tormented when they struggled to read.

“It’s been so debilitating to them and so embarrassing, and they had such low self-esteem,” Kinney says. But when the students came to Park and were surrounded by kids just like them and received specialized reading materials, it was “transformational.”

Like those students, Winkler says he also he didn’t give up.

“I live by tenacity and gratitude,” Winkler says. “Tenacity gets you where you want to go. And gratitude doesn’t allow you to be angry along the way because there are people that treat you with such disrespect because you don’t know something, you can’t spell.”

Winkler says many people doubted him.

“Believe me, I think about that,” he says. “I think about all the people that made fun of me, even in Hollywood when I first started, and they were cooler.”

Many of his critics did not experience much of a career arc, but he “kept moving forward,” he says. And he’s not about to stop achieving.

Winkler is co-starring and producing “Better Late than Never,” a new show debuting Aug. 23 on NBC; it will also star William Shatner, Terry Bradshaw and George Foreman as symbols of American culture who spend a month finding their way through Asia, sans assistants.

Winkler also has sent the latest Hank Zipzer novel to his publisher.

“Now there are 31 novels,” Winkler says. “I am in the bottom 3 percent academically. That these two things go together still shocks me.”

Piper Park, who founded Park Academy, says she invited Winkler as her premiere guest and speaker because she’d heard about his life and could relate to what he’d experienced: One of her sons, now 28, is dyslexic.

“I knew that he was dyslexic," she says. "And at one of our board meetings, I said, 'I understand that Henry Winkler is a very sweet and humble man. Let’s ask him. That’s what we did.'"

Park says she started the school with 11 children in 2005 because her son inspired her to find a way to effectively teach dyslexic children. This school year, Park Academy housed 63 students, grades 3-12, and six students graduated.REVIEW PHOTO: KELSEY OHALLORAN - Park Academy students Zoe Davis (left) and Dylan Harvey said Henry Winkler told them that theyre smart kids.

Winkler had the chance to mingle with Park Academy students during a VIP meet-and-greet before the main dinner and auction on June 16.

“He’s really good at talking to people,” says Zoe Davis, a senior. “I don’t feel all scared off. He’s really friendly.”

Davis says Winkler told her and seventh-grader Dylan Harvey that they should know that they’re smart students. Winkler was “really nice and sweet,” Harvey says.

Harvey says she had a wonderful evening, and she even got to model a sapphire-and-diamond ring that was being auctioned off at the school fundraiser, which raised $388,520 and drew 300 people.

“Do you know what I really like about this school?” Harvey says. “No one’s really afraid to be themselves. A lot of people got bullied, and I guess it’s good having people that understand how you feel. If someone’s dyslexic or has dyscalculia (a math learning condition) or ADHD, people can just be themselves, and it doesn’t really matter if they can’t spell a word or write something directly or fix a problem, and they won’t feel embarrassed.”

Even without such a supportive environment, Winkler says he learned through difficult experiences that he could achieve all his dreams through tenacity and will. But in such an environment, Harvey and Davis say they don’t need to be told they can achieve their dreams.

“We know,” they told The Review in unison.

By Jillian Daley
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