Jeff Jardine

May 11, 2008

Modesto man takes guesswork out of his life by learning how to read

Walter Woodley worked for the city of Modesto for 33 years, rising to become the chief groundskeeper at John Thurman Field.

He oversaw the rebuilding of the playing surface during the stadium renovation in 1997. He spent a few weeks each spring at the major-league training camps in Arizona, learning trade secrets from other groundskeepers.

The secret to his success, however, couldn't possibly match the secret he kept from most of his co-workers and even his children for decades:

He could not read.

We're not talking about the inability to plod through Tolstoy's "War and Peace" or textbooks or quarterly stock reports. Nor are we talking about lacking the skills needed to scan newspapers, magazines or even comic books.

We're talking about a person who, at Earth Day festivities at Graceada Park in 2005, relied on his wife to read aloud the words on a sign in front of the Stanislaus Literacy Center's booth:

"If you can't read this, you need our help."

Yes, Woodley needed the center's help because he wanted nothing more in life than to read -- to read books, to read Scripture.

"I picked up a pamphlet, and I couldn't wait until that Monday to go sign up," Woodley said.

Now, after masking his deficiency for so many years, Woodley, 59, is willing to tell his story, to write it and read it, too.

He entered the Literacy Center's ReadingWorks program, working with tutor Marilyn Halferty. He now reads at an 11th-grade level, attaining a measure of skill, confidence and pride he had never thought possible.

His problem began in the 1960s as a 13-year-old living in El Centro, just 11 miles north of the Mexican border.

"We used to go to Mexico all the time to fish or whatever," Woodley said. But after one trip south of the border, he came down with a fever that wouldn't subside.

"They packed me in ice," he said.

The fever morphed into pneumonia and caused brain damage that affected his cognitive and physical skills.

"I had to learn to walk all over again," Woodley said. "I didn't know my friends anymore. I had to learn everything all over again."

When he returned to school, as a seventh-grader, officials placed him in special education classes. The illness left him unable to relate sounds to the written word.

"It was extremely hard," he said.

His father moved the family to Modesto when Woodley was 16, and he took a couple of classes at Modesto Junior College.

"I did OK in math, but not the reading," he said. "They didn't teach phonics. I thought I'd better get a job because I wasn't going to make it in school."

He joined the Army in the early 1970s, but managed to miss Vietnam. When his hitch ended, the city of Modesto hired him through the federal Public Employment Program (PEP) to help build a city park.

"In those days, people who were good, solid workers for a season or two or three could get (hired)," said Bill Cameron, a former parks official who hired Woodley. "There was not as much of a requirement for reading then."

When the program ended, parks and recreation officials didn't want to lose him. So they altered the hiring process.

"Walter was a dependable, hardworking employee, but he couldn't read well enough to take the test," said Steve Lumpkin, the city's parks operations superintendent. "So we sat down and read questions to him, and when he replied, we wrote down his answers. He has a great memory. You only had to show him something one time. But we knew he had a learning disability as far as his ability to read."

Whenever the job required paperwork, Woodley would consult with his bosses or take it home.

"The only thing I could do is get outside help or have my wife do it," Woodley said.

He sometimes hired typists to produce documents, paying out of his own pocket, Lumpkin said.

"It was always a quality product," Lumpkin said. "He never came back and said, 'I can't do it.' He never asked for any favors."

If Woodley needed to read something to his crew members, he recruited his wife to help him memorize it.

"I'd take it home and rehearse it," he said.

Consequently, many co-workers never understood the scope of his problem. Neither did his three sons until they were into their teens.

"They'd ask him for help with their homework and he'd tell them, 'Go ask mom,' " Carol Woodley said. "They're grown now. Back then, they thought he didn't want to be bothered."

Whenever the Woodleys traveled, Carol navigated.

"When we were out on the freeway, he had me looking for the signs," said Carol, who finished only 10th grade herself. " 'There's the Barstow turnoff.' We're more or less a team. What he didn't know, I did."

While working in the airport neighborhood one day, Woodley struck up a conversation with a flight instructor who later taught him how to fly a small airplane. But he never became a pilot. He knew he couldn't read the test well enough to pass it, and therefore never took it.

At the same time, he could memorize certain words in the Department of Motor Vehicles handbook, enabling him to obtain his Class B and C driver's licenses.

"I figure the test would have the same words in it," he said. He guessed correctly.

Several years ago, Woodley told Lumpkin he needed three months off during the winter to attend a specialized reading course in Sacramento. He paid thousands of dollars for tuition, along with living expenses. While the school's teaching method didn't click with Woodley, it convinced him he could learn more.

"What it did was show him the world he could obtain," Lumpkin said.

So when he and Carol attended the 2005 Earth Day event, and she read him the Literacy Center's sign, he knew it was time to try again.

Karen Williams, the center's director, arrived at work the next Monday to find him waiting outside.

After chatting with him a few minutes, she became convinced of his desire to learn. But after putting him through a battery of reading comprehension tests, she wasn't sure why he was there.

"He tested at a high-school level," she said. "We thought he didn't really need a program until he got busted."

He really didn't know the answers.

"He'd become very good at guessing," Williams said.

They paired him with Halferty, a retired schoolteacher who is a volunteer tutor. After learning about his childhood illness, Halferty suspected the fever had damaged his frontal and temporal lobes, because he struggled to connect letters of the alphabet with the sounds they represent. She consulted a neurosurgeon, who agreed that probably was the case. So she tailored his learning program to make those connections. They've met twice weekly for 90-minute sessions at the Stanislaus County Library since 2005.

"We went over 'e' thousands and thousands of times," Halferty said. "Short e and long e. Walter's brain could not differentiate the 'eh' from the 'eee' sounds. It took him six months to master."

She uses index cards with color codes to help him recognize other sounds and letters.

It's taken awhile, but he's made extraordinary progress. He's written several short stories detailing his life experiences as a person who could not read.

And they've become close friends. The Woodleys chauffeur Halferty, who doesn't drive, to appointments and to their tutoring sessions.

"We take her here and there -- me or my wife," said Woodley, who retired from the city in 2006. "I'm getting all this free education. It's the least I can do."

He can now easily read the sign his wife had to help him with about three years ago, which makes him a believer in the Literacy Center and the ReadingWorks program.

"If it helped me, it can help anyone," he said. "Now, I read just about every day. Lots of big words. I have to sound them out, but I'm on my way."

And he doesn't care who knows.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. He can be reached at or 578-2383.

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