Henry Winkler spoke at the Dillon Lecture Series at Hutchinson Community College this morning. Best known for his role as “The Fonz” on Happy Days, Winkler is also an activist and co-author with Lin Oliver of a series of children’s books.
The son of German Jews who emmigrated to the US and believed strongly in education, Winkler’s academic showing was a disappointment to his parents. They referred to him with a German phrase that translated means, “dumb dog.”
Winkler learned at age 31 he had dyslexia and it explained the difficulty he had had in school. He said he defined dyslexia for himself as being one-third figuring out school, one-third figuring out why you can’t figure out school, and one-third covering the shame and humiliation.
When it was time for college, Winkler applied to 28 schools before getting two to accept him. He went to Emerson College in Boston and said he nearly flunked out his first year but he took so many tours around that they gave him another chance.
At the luncheon afterward he said he got through college by reading each word separately, and outloud. He learned scripts the same way.
He eventually was accepted into the Yale School of Drama. At this time he said, “I was tired of continually hearing negative thoughts about everything.” He realized that’s how he was talking to himself and he learned a technique that whenever a negative thought started he would mentally say, “I’m sorry. I’ve got no time for you now.”
He said, “Don’t put a period on the end of a negative thought.” That way it can’t grow into a negative sentence, a negative paragraph or a negative thesis. Winkler finished Yale, and was one of only three asked to join the professional acting company.
Winkler has an affinity for children, and spoke directly to the young people in the audience today. He said, “You all have greatness in you. Every single one of you has greatness. Your job is to figure out what your gift is. How we learn has nothing to do with how brilliant you are.”
He spoke about auditioning for his famous role as “The Fonz” in Happy Days. He said he got the call he had the role on his birthday, when he had run out of money. He mentioned the large amount of fan mail he got during those years, including the many gifts. There’s one he says he still has on his wall today, that he has had visible since 1975 – a metal cutting that says, “If you will it, it is not a dream.”
He said, “There’s no reason you can’t live your dream.” He reminded the children, “You have an amazing amount of power inside you. Your job is to figure out what to do with that power.”
Winkler’s parents were not impressed when he got accepted to Yale. They were not impressed when he got the role of “The Fonz.” But, once the show became popular, and for the 10 years it ran, they referred to themselves as, “the co-producers of Henry Winkler.” He joked people were always telling him they had his parents’ autographs.
Winkler said we all have to make the most of ourselves because:
1. each of us has unique qualities
2. we need to help someone else, and if we don’t something mportant will remain undone
3. we can help people at the beginning of life before damage is done
He went on to say, “This city, this state, this nation rests in very little hands.”
He admonished the crowd that the “prejudice between intellectual and vocational pursuits has to be erradicated.” He went on to say that the great scientist will be living in a house built by a contractor.
At the luncheon afterwards, he spoke briefly about education and said teachers are expected to teach the brightest student and the one having difficulty the same material in the same amount of time. He said, “It is Herculean, and almost impossible.”
The short section he read from one of the books today was about him trying to take a spelling test and the frustration that led to him banging his hand on his head.
Winkler ended his speech by saying, “Thank you so much for listening, because my parents never did.”
Afterwards he spoke with people and shook hands for quite awhile, getting to the patron luncheon much later than usual. I didn’t mind at all, even though we had very little time with him at the luncheon. It was nice to know lots of people got to connect with him.