Monday, May 21, 2018
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Rising to the Challenge: Henry Winkler has learned to cope with dyslexia


Henry Winkler is co-author of the Hank Zipzer series of books about a boy with a learning disability.


A couple of words bedeviled Henry Winkler as a youth.

“‘Hypotenuse’ was a weight around my neck and the rope burned my skin,” Mr. Winkler says. A hypotenuse is the side in a right-angled triangle that’s opposite the right angle.

“I took geometry for four years. I felt bad. I was punished. I was tutored. Every available moment that I was not eating a tuna fish sandwich was filled with trying to learn geometry: it did not compute in my mind.”

The other was “dummer hund,” dumb dog, which is how his German-born father, a lumber-firm president who spoke 11 languages and had young Henry tutored in German and French, referred to him several times a day.

Vanquishing those barbed words infused his adult life with a positive passion he never could have predicted.

Mr. Winkler, actor/director/producer and, in the last decade, co-author of 25 children’s books (so appreciated in England they named him Honorary Officer of the Order of the British Empire as well as a 2013 Literacy Hero), will tell his story at 7 p.m. Wednesday in the Stranahan Theater as part of the Authors! Authors! series coordinated by The Blade and the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library.

Baby Boomers have affection for the Fonz, the high-school dropout Mr. Winkler portrayed for a decade on the TV comedy Happy Days. Winkler reached a different audience appearing as the high-school principal in Scream, the 1996 slasher flick.

He’s appeared on TV’s Arrested Development, Royal Pains, Children’s Hospital, Parks and Recreation, and, in England, as Mr. Rock, a teacher in Hank Zipzer, a half-hour comedy series for kids about a 13-year-old who has dyslexia.

If you go:

Talk is at 7 p.m. Wednesday followed by a Q&A and book signing.

Stranahan Theater, 4645 Heatherdowns Blvd.

Tickets: $10; $8 students, at the door and library branches.

Seating is first-come, first-served.

Information: 419-259-5266.

Manhattan-born Mr. Winkler’s salvation was his single-minded goal to be an actor, which propelled him through a master’s degree in drama from Yale University. Nevertheless, he figured he was a dumb dog until he was 31.

He had met a beautiful redhead while he was buying a jacket and asked her out for a soda (he doesn’t drink). He married Stacey, whose father became his dentist. One day Jed, her third-grade son from her first marriage, was unable to write a report about the family’s trip to the Hopi Nation in Arizona.

“I kept saying to him everything that was said to me. ‘You’re lazy. Come on, you’re so verbal. I know you’re just not trying.’ He couldn’t do it so we had him tested and everything the tester said about him, was true about me.”

Jed had dyslexia.

“And I found out at 31 that I wasn’t stupid, I wasn’t lazy, I wasn’t the nicknames that my parents gave to me. I had something with a name. I had a learning challenge.”

Dyslexia is hereditary; Mr. Winkler’s biological son and daughter received the same diagnosis. “I told my children, as long as you try your hardest, whatever you bring home is fine. You get into trouble when you don’t try.”

After reading his first novel, Jean M. Aul’‍s The Clan of the Cave Bear, he placed it on a shelf as a trophy, and has done the same with each of the hundreds of books he’s since read.

“I read very slowly,” says Mr. Winkler, who lives with Stacey in Santa Monica, Calif.

He learns well through hearing and has a great memory, so over the years when friends read his lines to him, he got them quickly. His splendid career has included film, television, stage, and roles ranging from Captain Hook and an incompetent attorney to a parolee and a football coach.

He was dumbfounded when his agent suggested he write books for kids, but teamed up with writer Lin Oliver and in 2002 published Hank Zipzer: World’s Best Underachiever, about a funny, resourceful boy who’s among the 20 percent who have a learning challenge.

Here’s how they write: Mr. Winkler goes to Oliver’s office and talks out a chapter. The material has to make them laugh. To make the books even better for kids who have reading challenges, the pages include a lot of white space and are printed in a typeface called Dyslexie Font, created in 2008 by a Dutch man who has dyslexia.

Mr. Winkler and Oliver are on their 26th book. He’s become an advocate for kids who learn differently and for educational changes “in the way we teach children how they learn not what we think they should learn.”

Mr. Winkler was born in Manhattan in 1945. His middle name is Franklin, a tribute to the U.S. president in 1939 when his Jewish parents arrived from Nazi Germany.

Grandfather to three, he loves taking photographs, fly fishing for trout with his wife, and going to theater, movies, and restaurants that make great food.

Contact Tahree Lane at and 419-724-6075.

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