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Obituaries

George Dawson; Author Learned to Read at 98

July 07, 2001|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

He learned his ABCs in only two days, skipped printing the letters and went straight to writing in cursive. He was in a hurry to replace his official "X" with a perfect signature.

A mere four years later he was signing autographs across the country for his first book, the remarkable memoir of a century of hardship without bitterness, "Life Is So Good."

George Dawson, who became America's favorite poster child for literacy when he learned to read at age 98 and became a highly publicized author last year, has died. He was 103.

Dawson, who had been in declining health since a fall in February, died Thursday in his Dallas home.

"To read his vivid account of his experiences," a Times reviewer wrote of Dawson's autobiography, coauthored with Richard Glaubman, "is to come to appreciate how hard-won is his optimistic, yet down-to-earth outlook."

The book has been praised for providing a straightforward black man's view of evolving racial attitudes, illustrating common sense and decency and boosting literacy programs. After its publication, Dawson became a media darling on such national television shows as "Oprah Winfrey," "Nightline," "Good Morning America" and "Sunday Morning." He was profiled in People magazine and several newspapers.

Born on a family farm near Marshall, Texas, on Jan. 19, 1898, Dawson was the grandson of a slave and worked from the age of 4. At 12, he was "farmed out," or sent to a faraway white man's farm as a hired hand for $1.50 per month to help his family.

The hard life continued with jobs picking cotton and sugar cane, breaking wild horses, building Mississippi River levees, shoveling dirt into wagons pulled by mules, working on the railroad and building roads. A Dallas resident since 1928, Dawson worked for its Oak Farms Dairy for nearly 25 years.

There was some fun along the way, including a bit of educational roaming, often hobo-style riding the rails. Dawson went to Canada because he wanted to see snow, and he went to Mexico, where he was amazed that a black man could be served in any cafe he chose.

Learning, he taught his two sons and three daughters, was important regardless of age. But what with working and supporting the family he was born into and then the one he spawned, Dawson never had the time--or money and opportunity--even to learn to read and write.

In 1996, a literacy volunteer knocked on Dawson's door in a poor area of south Dallas. Told that adult education courses were being taught a few blocks away at the old high school, Dawson responded eagerly, "Wait, I'll get my coat."

He was a stellar student, enhancing his appeal for a story or two about his 100th birthday celebration in 1998. Far away in Port Townsend, Wash., elementary schoolteacher Richard Glaubman read one of those articles and decided Dawson could inspire his fourth-grade students to relish education.

After a single polite but stilted phone conversation, Glaubman splurged all his frequent flier miles and flew to Texas. Dawson was gracious, but dawdled for weeks over signing a book contract, explaining that his father always warned of trouble when "whites and coloreds" mixed.

Gently, slowly forming a strong friendship, the white teacher recorded the elderly black man's lifetime of musings during school-break visits over a period of two years. The teacher learned a lot about race relations and social history as well as the things that contribute to a long and well-lived life.

He once asked what Dawson remembered of the 1925 Scopes trial, only to be told: "No offense, son, but I don't think we was too worried about what a white man was allowed to teach. A lot of us never had the chance to go to school anyway."

Together, Dawson and "my friend Richard," as Glaubman is referred to in the book, wrote a moving memoir. It was snapped up by a New York literary agent and then by Random House.

Despite the happy ending of Dawson's long-delayed literacy, the book begins on a far more somber note.

Only 11, Dawson was in town with his father to sell sugar-cane syrup they had made on the farm. As he was buying candy, with his proud father telling him life was so good, a commotion erupted in the street. The boy then saw the lynching of a black teenage acquaintance for purportedly impregnating a white girl. Six months after the hanging, the white girl gave birth to her white boyfriend's baby.

As a retiree, Dawson did yard work for a woman who set out lunch for him on the back porch, expecting him to eat with her dogs. Instead, he went hungry, telling her softly, "I am a human being."

Injustices ran rampant throughout his life, as Dawson related in his matter-of-fact, uncomplaining way, yet none dented his staunch philosophy that "life is so good."

"We owned almost nothing," he wrote. "But we had each other and no one ever told us we were poor."

Financial success from the book enabled Dawson to raze his dilapidated house and build a new one. But, after all the travel and the interviews and the awards, he settled back into his regular routine of attending adult school classes in social studies, science and math.

A nonsmoker and teetotaler (except for one occasion in 1928), he also cooked his own "common food," to which he attributed his longevity: hot chocolate and white bread for breakfast, a barbecued-beef sandwich and milk for lunch and, maybe fresh-caught catfish for dinner.

Dawson is survived by two sons, George Jr. and Darrell; and three daughters, Amelia Parks, Dorothy Jiles and Cecelia Harper.

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