OCEANSIDE — In college, John Corcoran used his excellent vocabulary to make a strong vocal impression in class, but often handed in other students' term papers and sought out copies of tests before his exams.
During his subsequent 18-year career in teaching, much of it in Oceanside schools, he never wrote on the blackboard and had students do all the reading in class.
When he left teaching to become a developer, Corcoran built his first project after buying completed plans and later surrounded himself with lawyers, secretaries and other specialists to do all his written work.
A few months ago, Corcoran, 50, revealed the explanation for all this behavior, an explanation that even his children and parents hadn't known: For the first 48 years of his life, Corcoran couldn't read.
"I couldn't decode the words," the multimillionaire developer said during an interview in his four-bedroom, four-bath, 4,000-square-foot hilltop home with a view of the Pacific Ocean. "I couldn't hear sounds. . . . I never went to the next dimension."
After financial setbacks forced him to lay off much of the staff he had assembled as his business support system, and thus cost him those who were paid to read for him, Corcoran finally decided that he had lived long enough as an illiterate.
In September, 1986, he enrolled in the Adult Learning Program offered by the Carlsbad City Library and spent 40 to 50 hours a week for the better part of two years learning how to sound out words.
On Sunday, Corcoran took the lectern to demonstrate his new ability to read during an 11 a.m. service in the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles, which is holding the service in conjunction with Project Literacy L.A., a cause that Corcoran has supported since coming forward with his story.
Corcoran, who as a graduate student won National Science Foundation grants to study in graduate schools at San Diego State, Louisiana State and Santa Clara universities and earned 90 units of graduate credit, recalled how hard he used to work to hide his inability to read.
It was a deception begun in grammar school, where he was regularly referred to as stupid and put in the lowest reading groups, and ended only when he walked into the Learning Program in a small Carlsbad shopping center two years ago.
It started, he said, when he failed to learn to sound out letters at any of the 15 schools he attended as a result of his father's frequent moves seeking better jobs as a teacher. And his mother, he said, was busy raising six children. So he did not feel he could tell them about his problem, no matter how severe it seemed. He was able to hide his secret because he worked hard and his parents never stopped encouraging him even though they didn't know.
His social skills and athletic abilities made him a leader on the playground, and he decided to use his sight, hearing and other strengths.
"I associated with people with good vocabularies and picked their brains so I developed a pretty decent speaking vocabulary," he said.
"I listened to radio and watched films, TV, plays and pictures in magazines. . . . I went to all kinds of galleries."
A Non-Reader's Tricks
As he moved through school he also developed any number of subterfuges. He learned to talk to friends about magazine articles and then repeat the friends' summaries of the information as his own. He gleaned information from television and passed it along as something he had read.
By the time he reached Texas Western College, now the University of Texas at El Paso, the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Corcoran had finely honed his athletic skills and was captain of the basketball team.
Yet if he entered a classroom where he had to take notes, he was terrified. "I would make sure nobody ever saw my writing," he said.
He earned a degree in education and went to graduate school where classrooms could also cause anxiety. "If someone said, 'Would you read?' I would say I didn't feel like reading," Corcoran said. "It was a psychology class and you could say no. Nobody picked up on it."
Classroom discussions were another matter. He entered them willingly because they provided a chance to prove himself. And Corcoran discovered that if he interested a professor in a topic, he might persuade the teacher to give him an oral exam rather than a written one.
"If there was any way I could come up with options to talk a guy out of a written exam, I had to take that chance," he said.
Teaching at Oceanside, Carlsbad and El Camino high schools and other locations forced him to rely on other unusual methods.
"I could not even read the students' names," he said. "I had them fill in their names on the seating chart when I made it out.
"If students liked to read I would encourage them. I even took books to class for them to read. I would have them do some kind of oral report.