An interview with Henry Winkler
Now and again, we are given the gift of a memorable story that finds us without our ever searching for it, a story that leaves behind a smile, an enduring imprint and lessons learned. In this instance, it is a conversation between two courageous, independent voices, from different times and contrasting generations whose language, warmth and authenticity resonate with humor and possibility.
We can all choose to remember Thanksgiving Day 2020, not as an imposition, or threat, or the suffocating fatigue of COVID-19, but in terms of a true story that redeems the value of remembering to say Thank You, and to say this often.
In her first email to Henry Winkler, Elayna Frost talked about building our wonderful rolling library and recruiting everybody she knew to donate terrific books. She made it clear they were not just for scholastic learning but they were needed to generate a culture of reading for fun at The Lewis School. She talked about herself, learning differences, her school, and about Mr. Winkler’s own life in an interview he granted her. The following are excerpts from their digital conversations – To Cheer You On This Special Day.
Dear Mr. Winkler,
My name is Elayna Frost, I am 16, and I am dyslexic.
The school I attend is The Lewis School in Princeton, New Jersey. It is a school for students like me who are dyslexic and have other learning differences. I have a hard time reading, writing and sometimes speaking. I have been attending The Lewis School for 2 years and it has helped me learn in a way that makes sense for my challenges.
As a fellow dyslexic, I would love to hear your story as a successful author and actor. Would you consider speaking with me about your experiences? I think your story would speak to the students about the great things you can still do even if you have a learning difference.
If you cannot, it would be wonderful if you would consider donating a few of your Hank Zipzer books to my school library. If they were signed copies with inspirational notes in them, I know the students would be motivated and thrilled!
Thank you for taking the time to read my letter. I hope you will consider talking to me.
EF: Will you share with me your journey with dyslexia? What was your favorite subject?
HW: Recess, Gym and Lunch!
EF: Who was your favorite teacher and why? What would you say to him or her now?
HW: Mr. Rock in High School. He was the head of the music department and directed school musicals. He saw the talent in me and said, “You’re going to be OK, just graduate!” Dr. Charlotte Lingrend, my professor in college. Simply because she believed in me and how she made me feel in her class. She is 94. I keep in touch with her by email and always send her a copy of my new books!
EF: Did other kids bully you because of your learning difference? If yes, how did you handle it?
HW: I attended a private school and some kids always thought they were better than others. I hid my difficulties with my actions, usually by humor. Bullies are like a single grain of sand running through your hands on the beach, or a single grain of salt. Usually, they are just one in many.
EF: How did you gain entry to Emerson and YALE? How did you keep up with the demands of college?
HW: I certainly did not get in because of my grades. I had personality! Back then college was not as competitive to get into. It was a different time. College was NOT EASY! Where there is a will, there is a way! (Mr. Winkler went on to say he had to write a paper on sociology and he took the textbook written by Emile Durkheim, which he never read, and wrote the paper on what he thought the book was about, based on the table of contents! Do not do this! He somehow got a B on the paper.)
EF: Did you know you always wanted to be an actor?
HW: No, I thought I would work with kids. I love kids and relate to them. In high school I worked as an after school counselor with underprivileged kids.
EF: What was the first play you were in?
HW: I was a tube of toothpaste in nursery school. I was minty fresh!
EF: What was the first book you ever read?
HW: I was 31. I read The Clan of The Cave Bear and I loved it. I kept it and all the books I have read, they are reminders of my achievement and what I have overcome.
EF: What was it like playing FONZIE on Happy Days?
HW: CRAZY! As Fonzie, to start with, I only had 6 lines. The part grew. At the height of the show, I received 50,000 fan letters a week, and it was overwhelming. The cast was patient with me, I would forget my lines and/or miss a cue, or be off my timing.
‘In the “Jump The Shark” episode, I finished a water skiing stunt, and when I skied to the beach, I was smiling.’ Fonzie’s character does not smile. I did smile because #1, I was like OMG, and #2 AYYYE!
EF: HANK ZIPZER … is he Henry Winkler?
EF: What advice would you give me OR kids who are struggling with learning?
HW: 1. Eventually you will know what you want to do in life. When you think you know, don’t let it out of your head. You have greatness inside of you.
2. Say, “I WILL TRY!” You may fail but you must try again and again.
3. People might bully you, but you will likely never see them again after school.
4. I still read very slowly one word at a time. When I had children, I read bedtime stories to the kids too slowly so my wife took over the reading, and I acted the story out.
EF: What would you say to your younger self?
(This question made Mr. Winkler think and sigh, and for the first time he really thought for a minute before he answered.)
HW: If you keep your eye on the prize and keep walking forward to your dream, whatever the problem, failure or rejection is, it is only a moment. Be like a “WEEBLE”, tip over and pop back to the center again and again.
EF: Would you consider donating a few Hank books to my library project? And sign them for the students of my school?
HW: Yes! Books will be arriving for the project and please tell the students at The Lewis School I said hello!!
Mr. Winkler said we are now old friends and I should call him Henry! I told him he was always welcome to my school if he was ever in the area. He also told me that I was smart and articulate!
This Thanksgiving, there are blessings in abundance to remember. Everyone at The Lewis School sends you our warmest regards and appreciation. Let’s all take a deep breath and give thanks in our own way – and maybe with a resounding AYYYE!
Marsha Gaynor Lewis, for The Lewis School