Man a Reading Role Model
Students at Manchester Elementary have a new pen pal
By Chris Henry, Kitsap Sun
Friday, October 31, 2008
Photo by Eric Keith / St. Joseph News-Press
A Wish Come True for
From Bob Haverstick, Executive Director and Founder of Never Too Late, in
regards to Alferd Williams' wish to meet Bill Cosby:
"After hearing about Alferd's request, Mr. Cosby was gracious enough to agree to the meet and greet with Alferd.
He had his pilot land his plane at the airport in St. Joseph, Missouri and then the 'fantabulous' comedian/author/actor spent 50 minutes on the tarmac with Alferd, his fellow first graders, some teachers and some parents.
It was an AWESOME experience for everyone there! Mr. Cosby even autographed Alferd's favorite 'Little Bill' book and then Alferd proudly showcased his reading talents for Mr. Cosby, using that same book."
Alferd Williams, 70, is a first-grade student at Edison Elementary School in St. Joseph, Mo. The son of a sharecropper, Williams never learned to read when he was young. Now he's making up for lost time and spreading the word to school children across the county that it's never too late to achieve your dreams.
When Manchester volunteer coordinator Lisa Lightbody read about Williams in the April 7 issue of People magazine, she was "touched and inspired." So much so that she organized a schoolwide campaign to celebrate his achievement.
Each class has picked a book to send to Williams. Students have been writing letters of encouragement to him, and they're finding plenty of common ground with the man old enough to be their grandfather.
"What type of book do you like to read, action, nonfiction, fiction or mystery books?" wrote Nathan Pettit, 10, a student in Donna Hollon's third-fourth grade class. "I like just about all of them."
"We are so happy you are reading," wrote Courtney Cemulini, 8, also in Hollon's class. "I am really excited to write this, and I'm really excited to hear about you."
Williams' accomplishment has caused plenty of excitement at Edison, said his teacher, Alesia Hamilton. The mild-mannered, white-haired septuagenarian has appeared on Oprah's and Ellen DeGeneres' TV shows, and in September, he got the opportunity to meet his "favorite author," Bill Cosby, through Never Too Late, a nonprofit organization that grants wishes for the elderly. (See sidebar for details!)
Williams, speaking by cell phone Friday, talked about what it felt like when, at 68, he entered the world of literacy.
"It's a dream that came true," he said. "It was like a freedom to me. I can do things I've never been able to do. I can do things on my own without having to ask anybody for help."
A number of schools across the country in addition to Manchester Elementary have sent care packages to Williams in honor of his moving life story.
Williams was born in 1937 to Samuel and Lilly Williams of Eudora, Ark., the People article states. The fourth of nine children, he was 8 years old when he went to work in the fields, picking crops to help on the family farm.
His mother could read, but working the farm left no time for bedtime stories. His father was unable to read and was taken advantage of because of it, Williams recalls.
Williams' mother made him promise that someday he would learn to read. But with 10 children of his own and a life of manual labor, the opportunity just never presented itself.
Life has not been easy for Williams, who lives in a basement flat on $825 a month in Social Security and disability pay. But his luck began to change one day in 2005 when he began walking the children of a friend to the elementary school. Williams became acquainted with veteran teacher Alesia Hamilton, whose gentle manner encouraged him to ask if she could teach him to read.
For two hours every afternoon that summer, Hamilton worked with Williams, building his literacy skills from the ground up. That fall, she persuaded principal Jennifer Patterson to let Williams enroll at Edison.
Williams has remained in Hamilton's class and will study with her for as long as it takes, until he gets his GED.
According to Patterson, Williams has become a beloved grandfatherly figure to the children of Edison Elementary.
"He is a gentle spirit, an eager learner," she said. "He's caring and compassionate. He's driven to succeed."
"He's been just a great role model for the kids," Hamilton said. "It's amazing how his story affects so many. ... I can't imagine life without him."
"This man is the most courageous person I've ever heard of. It must be a humbling experience to be able to say 'I can't read, but I want to learn to read,'" said Lightbody, whose letter to People in response to the story was quoted in the magazine.
The students at Manchester have shown admiration and empathy for Williams.
"Learning to read at age 70 would be hard," said Simeon Wells, 10, of Hollon's class. "You're, like, older than everybody, and, like, some of the kids may think they're better than him, but then he makes friends and they read together."
Williams has some advice for the children of Manchester Elementary.
"They need to get an education right now if they want to be anything," said Williams, whose goal is to attend college some day.
He also sent a message of thanks for the students' gift of letters and books.
"As soon as I get me a house, I think I'm going to have one of the biggest libraries in the world," he said, laughing heartily. "Tell all of the kids I love them. I've got 23 kids in my school, and I love them all to death. They're a part of me."
Members of the Manchester PTSO donated money for the books to be sent to Williams. Also donating books were SK Superintendent David LaRose and Port Orchard Mayor Lary Coppola.