Retirement Letter — p. 2

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Learning from parents and learning to adjust

And just as no pitcher wins a game alone, I, too, had lots of help. Starting in 1978 when principals Jim Moriarty and Mary McGrath of Springfield, Massachusetts, asked me to speak to their combined PTO's, I worked with some of the most dedicated, caring educators and parents in America. They inspired me and educated me, sharing their triumphs and failures with me, and allowing me to incorporate them into my lectures, books, and films.

While most of my efforts were in educating parents about what they could do to raise readers, there were more than a few who educated me instead. Marcia Thomas and her husband Mark were raising their Down Syndrome daughter Jennifer when she wrote to tell me her family's inspiring story and then trusted me to share it with my Handbook readers. Likewise, Linda Kelly-Hassett and her husband Jim kept a diary of their dozens of daily read-alouds with their adopted daughter Erin, then shared the list with me and my readers through the years. I am more than proud to have been even a tiny part of these families' lives and triumphs.

I'd be lying if I painted every one of my 2,500 presentations as rosy perfect. A few were the direct opposite. Consider, for example, the school inservice one morning near the Jersey shore:

  1. Directions to the program site arrived at my office the day of the program, 24 hours after I'd departed for Jersey;
  2. The microphone didn’t work;
  3. Only half the overhead projector image was bright enough, the other half too dim;
  4. The screen was old, too small, and placed too low for attendees to see;
  5. There weren’t enough chairs for the 160 attendees (despite advance registration);
  6. When the microphone was fixed, it hummed loudly if the overhead was turned on.

Aren't you glad they weren’t in charge of the kindergarten field trip or the parent picnic?

But if you're going to travel and speak for a living, you learn to adjust — to almost anything. Once I arrived in a town (Arcadia, California) right after a Santa Ana wind storm of record strength. Power lines were down all over town, including at the school site, but six parents showed up with high-power flashlights, sat in the front row, and the show went on. One Saturday morning in Tucson, Arizona, there were 500 teachers for a literacy conference at a local high school. The only problem was the light switches for the stage were locked up and only the missing custodian knew where the key was. So I presented on a darkened stage, barely able to see in front of myself, telling the audience that if they were wondering what I looked like, think of a young "Robert Redford." They took it seriously, until a half hour into the program when someone found the keys and put on the lights. It took me five minutes to get them to stop laughing.

Five great principals

The occasional inept principal-host was always overshadowed by people like Tom O'Neill Jr., Mike Oliver, Ross Scarantino, Randy Overbeck, and Joan Moorman. I say we should forget about cloning the sheep and start cloning people like these.

Tom O'Neil Jr.l was a Boston high school teacher when he attended two of my programs back in 1982 and 1983. A year later they made him principal of the worst-performing junior high in Boston — where he incorporated two of my seminar subjects: SSR and reading aloud to classes. By 1988, his school (the one Boston teachers had nicknamed "the Loonybin") had the highest reading scores of the city's 22 junior highs. When I wrote of Tom's success in a subsequent edition of The Read-Aloud Handbook, it was included in the Japanese edition where his SSR program was adopted by first one Japanese school and then by more than 3,000 schools.

Mike Oliver, a Mesa, Arizona principal truly devoted to children and literacy, attended one of my BER seminars and took the idea of rain gutter bookshelves to heights the rest of the nation could model on. In 2008, ten of the top education officials from Russia visited his school to see what they could learn from his successes.

Ross Scarantino, of Pittston, Pennsylvania, and Randy Overbeck, of Xenia, Ohio, both taught me how little I truly knew about inspirational leadership in small communities. They predicted they'd have huge numbers of parents for my presentations, despite my calm assurances they had no chance of getting such numbers. Ross had 900 and Randy had 1,100. When I asked someone in Pittston, PA, how Scarantino could have gotten that kind of turnout, he laughed and said, "You don't know how things work here in this town. They love this guy so much that when he says jump, parents say, 'How high?'"

Joan Moorman consistently drew hundreds of parents to her school events, even though she was principal of a largely blue-collar, Latino community school in Covina, California. She not only shared her formula with me, she also allowed me to post it at my Web site through the years. Here's how successful it was. On two successive nights a few years ago, I was speaking in two southern California communities: Fontana and Laguna Niguel. Fontana is a very blue-cola town, and home to one of the largest numbers of trucks and truck-drivers in America. Using the Moorman formula for reaching parents, the school district attracted 400 parents, half of whom heard the presentation via headphones and simultaneous translation in Spanish. The next night, a Laguna Niguel school chose not to use the Moorman approach and drew 28 parents. You can lead a horse to water . . .

My professors of reading and lit

Just like any rookie pitcher, I benefited greatly from the counseling I received from veterans who had been around the education field longer than I. First, there was Bill Halloran who shared his experiences and wisdom, while inspiring me with his example. Nobody ever gave me bigger professional boosts than Pat Koppman, one of the best presidents the International Reading Association ever had. And then there were four college professors and one librarian who were kind enough to treat me as an equal when I was far from that: Diane Lowe at Framingham State (MA); Stephen Krashen at USC; Bee Cullinan at NYU; the grand dame of children's lit, Charlotte Huck; and a librarian in Santa Clara, California named Jan Lieberman (a true Renaissance woman). These people made more sense of reading than 90 percent of superintendents and secretaries of education could in 100 years and I was blessed to have them touch my life.

How does one begin to thank the hundreds of classroom teachers who shared their thoughts and classes with me? Whom do I dare slight by leaving them off a list of accolades? Nonetheless, I could never sleep at night if I didn't name these three: Ann and Mary Dryden; and Kathy Nozzolillo. The Dryden sisters were two extraordinary educators in Springfield, Massachusetts, who were the very first to invite me to their classrooms back in 1967. That first school is now named after Mary and, appropriately, her sister is principal. Kathy Nozzolillo, also from Springfield, Massachusetts, has been my friend for a half century and is the consummate educator who shared her love of reading with her students and then couldn't wait to share those same students with me in my films and books.

Those were just the teachers who helped me professionally. There were also the ones who took me in hand when I was one of the students in their classrooms, beginning with Harold "Bud" Porter and Al Schmidt in North Plainfield, New Jersey, and the Sisters of St. Joseph in Springfield, Massachusetts. The most important lesson I carried away from their classrooms was this: "We really care about you and think you're capable of great stuff." I never learned anything more important.

My unofficial 'fan club'

Every pitcher draws a big chunk of energy from his fans and I had a few who, when you look up the word "kindness" in the dictionary, there ought to be a picture of these three. Marilyn Carpenter was a mom with three kids, working her way through her education degrees toward a doctorate, when she and her husband Warren invited me to stay in their Arcadia, California home for several weeks back in 1984. It was my first West Coast tour and I was a neophyte on the freeways. The Carpenters' generosity with home, hospitality, and freeway tips has never been forgotten.

And then there was Connie Martin. She heard me 13 times and says she learned something every time. As grateful as I am for her loyalty, I'm also grateful she never died of boredom at any of my presentations.

One night in 1995, I spoke in Pacific Palisades, California, an affluent community outside L.A. I knew my childhood hero lived in the town and while I was talking with parents that night I told them I arrived two hours early and drove around town hoping to see him, then chided them for not having him on public display. They laughed, but a stranger in the audience, Janet Zarem, filed my words away in her memory bank. A year later she saw in the paper that I was speaking in town again, remembered my words about that childhood hero, and she wrote him a letter asking if he could spare an hour for coffee with me. That's how I came to be sitting awestruck in a sidewalk cafe, Jan. 30, 1997, with Vin Scully, the longtime voice of the Dodgers. (The story of that day can be found online at American Public Media's "The Story with Dick Gordon"; you can download the show's mp3 file at The Story (the file will automatically download to your computer; see second half of show).

That hour with Scully ranked at the top of my celebrity list, followed by sharing a cab and years later a catfish dinner with Chicago's legendary Studs Terkel. And the only thing I've tasted on the road that was better than those Mississippi catfish was "Aggie Ice Cream" at Utah State in Logan, something that ought to be a controlled substance. Another special treat was being interviewed in-studio for Larry King's old all-night radio program for Mutual, before CNN captured him and assigned him to follow the celebrities' "white Broncos" every night for the next two decades. It reminded me sadly of poor King Kong chained to the opera house.

Still on the subject of food, back in the early '90s, my friend Steven Herb invited me to a dinner party at his home before I was to speak near Hershey, Pennsylvania. This was decades before Steven would become director of the Pennsylvania Center for the Book. I'm not sure if Steven or his wife made out the seating chart, but whoever it was deserves an "A" for timing and placement. I ended up seated next to Paul Serf who happened to be on the Hershey historical commission. In the course of our dinner conversation he gave me one of the great shocks of my travel life: There was no existing broadcast recording of Wilt Chamberlain's famous 100-point game that had been played in Hershey back in 1962. Really? Absolutely. The commission had checked everywhere. None. And then it was my turn to jolt Mr. Serf: I had made a recording that night in 1962, right off the radio in my dormitory room at the University of Massachusetts—a recording I still had. Now, nearly 40 years after that game, the recording is part of the archives at the Basketball Hall of Fame. All thanks to a seating chart at Steven Herb's house.

Every pitcher needs a catcher (and some luck)

And finally, no pitcher could win even one game without a catcher and some luck.

My luck (and it was gigantic) was in having my neighbor Shirley Uman bump into an old family friend who was beginning his career as a literary agent — Rafael Sagalyn. He was looking for his first client and my neighbor mentioned the young dad up the street with his self-published little booklet on reading to kids. More luck: six publishers turned it down (including Scholastic) before Penguin took it on in 1982 and now we're approaching 2 million copies in print, while Rafe Sagalyn is one of Washington's top literary agents. And then there was even more luck when a new mom (Florence Brodkey) down in Arlington, Virginia was given a copy of my book by a grad-student carpenter. The new mom, in turn, read it and wrote a letter of endorsement to "Dear Abby," who read it herself and devoted almost an entire column to the book. Result: orders for 120,000 copies in 10 days. Long before there was an Oprah, there was a "Dear Abby," God bless her. (The whole Abby episode, including my dinner with the columnist and her midnight phone call to me one Easter Sunday night, can be heard in my interview with "Dick Gordon's The Story" online at [Once at the interview page, push the audio meter to the mid-program level for my interview in the second-half of the show.] )

I was also lucky enough to have a crew of great catchers in my family: my wife, my children, and my brothers. I bounced more ideas off them than anyone, trying things out on them long before the audiences heard them. And like good catchers, they kept me on track, told me when I was working too fast, and helped me redirect my pitches and ideas. My brother Brian not only caught the ideas, he practiced them with his own family, and shared his own lesson plans with me. I never had a better counselor.

Catchers are supposed to manage the game on the field, keeping distractions to a minimum — and nobody did that better than my wife Susan. I never had to pay a bill, write a check, or balance a checkbook. She took care of business and just let me pitch. To top it off, she cooked meals that rivaled great works of art. Who could ask for more?

My children, Elizabeth and Jamie, were the best audience a reader-aloud could ever find. None of the thousands of sites I worked in through the last 24 years were as good their bedrooms were from 1965 to 1982. They were the original inspiration for The Read-Aloud Handbook, showing me what worked and what didn't. Years later they shared their children with me and I learned even more. All together they were the best classes I ever took.

So now it's time to relax, pick up the books I've been buying for the last 20 years but didn't have enough time to read (ah, David McCullough), master my SLR digital camera, exercise and bike more often, play with my grandkids, listen to (and download to my iPod) the BBC online and NPR podcasts, and travel with Susan.

Thanks for being there for me. I'm truly grateful. And if you're not too busy yourself and you think there's something I need to know, send me an email about it.


When my father sat me on his lap and read to me each evening in New Jersey, he had no idea where the "reading seeds" he was planting would finally end up
sixty years later—in a national reading campaign in Poland.
See Reading Seeds.

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