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The crusade against illiteracy.

Barbara Bush, a woman with a mission, uses all the influence she can muster in leading the way to what has now become a national literacy movement

J. T. Pace, the 63-yearold son of a former sharecropper from Mauldin, South Carolina, will never forget the day he met the wife of the Vice President of the United States.

He had traveled to St. Louis last year to appear at the climactic moment of a three-hour live entertainment special on ABC-TV, a program celebrating the Fourth of July and the Bicentennial of the Constitution and promoting the cause of literacy.

Barbara Bush had come to St. Louis as well. Because of her concern about the growing problem of illiteracy in America and her compassion for those afflicted by the problem, she had become the national leader in the literacy movement. That evening she was to walk out on a giant stage under the Gateway Arch to speak before a live audience of 800,000 people -and many millions more on television -about illiteracy and the need to overcome it. She would then introduce J. T. Pace, who would step to the microphone and read the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States.

Until a year earlier, J. T. had been illiterate. He had lived a life of "deception," as he put it, of shame and frustration, his energies constantly directed toward trying to hide his inability to read or write. J. T., a deeply religious man, now had one driving goal in life-to be able to read the Bible. Listening to tape recordings and memorizing them were no longer enough; he wanted to read the Word himself. And so at the age of 62, he finally took the courageous step to enter literacy training.

For J. T. the experience was like being reborn. In a choking voice, he speaks of finally being free, comparing illiteracy to the life of slavery his forebears lived.

Television producer Vince Maynard thought it an inspired idea to have a former illiterate-a "new learner"-read from the basic document of the land on a TV special dedicated to literacy and the Constitution. How better to communicate these related themes of the program? And who better to introduce this than Barbara Bush, the No. 1 literacy advocate in the country? J. T. Pace was selected from among the participants in the ABC "Learner of the Month" series of public-service announcements.

There was just one problem. J. T. Pace was a troubled man. The problem was not so much fear at appearing before the 800,000 people who annually gather beneath the Gateway Arch for the St. Louis Fourth of July celebration. Rather, during his trip to St. Louis he had encountered difficult words as he tried to read and reread the Preamble. In particular, the word "tranquility" bothered him. He didn't know what it meant and he couldn't pronounce it.

(In a sense, J. T. was illustrating the broader problem. Experts say that it takes an Ii th-grade education to read and comprehend the Constitution. Nearly 60 million adult Americans cannot read or write beyond the 8th -grade level. What does this statistic say about the future of a democratic system?)

What was J. T. going to do? Wbat would Mrs. Bush think of him? J. T. was scheduled to meet with her at 10 a.m. in ABC's local production headquarters . The two would get to know each other and prepare for their joint appearance.

Minutes before the meeting, J. T. told Maynard he couldn't go on that night. Maynard's initial panic abated when J. T. explained his problem. Simple, Maynard said. J. T. was a new learner. Why not sit down later in the day and learn the"tranquility" and any others that bothered him?

J. T. shook his head. As nervous staffers hovered nearby, J. T. tried to explain the deeper issue. Having spent his life in deception, he now knew freedom from that. No longer would he memorize words and utter them as if he knew and understood and could read them. He simply couldn't do that and be honest with himself-even if it meant letting Mrs. Bush, Maynard, and everyone else down.

The stunned Maynard turned and sent two aides scurrying to see if they could find a replacement-a hopeless task at that point. Maynard groaned at the thought of losing the emotional climax to his show. Then he saw J. T. sitting disconsolate, his shoulders hunched. A decent man, a former Jesuit brother, Maynard understood J. T.'s religious conviction and his honesty. He put his arm around J. T. and Look, it's O.K. Why don't you come in and meet Barbara Bush anyway? She's anxious to meet you."

When the two men entered the room, Barbara Bush rose and greeted J. T. with a big smile. Warm and unpretentious, she is skilled at putting people at ease, not in a calculating way, but because it is natural for her. She is moved by people and their hopes and fears and joys and problems. Most of all, she is moved by new learners, by their courage and determination.

She and J. T. sat together on a couch and talked animatedly. He was visibly relaxing. Maynard finally leaned over and gently began talking about the problem. J. T. finished the explanation. A dozen aides stood around wondering what was going to happen.

In about ten seconds Barbara Bush understood not just the immediate problem, but exactly how J. T. felt. She told him she sometimes has difficulty with big words, too, that it is a problem for every reader. But she agreed he must do only what was comfortable for him. Then she took his hands in hers and asked gravely, "What if you and I read the Preamble together?"

There was silence in the room. Slowly a smile spread on J. T.'s face. "I'd like that," he said.

That evening they stood together on the podium and slowly began to read the Preamble. J. T. mumbled some of the difficult words. Gradually Barbara Bush's voice subsided as J. T. gained confidence and finished the reading in a strong voice, his eyes glistening with tears . . .

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Mrs. Bush and J. T. embraced as the audience of 800,000 people rose in a standing ovation. Barbara Bush's warmth and compassion and depth of understanding had helped J. T. Pace convert his sense of failure into a ' triumph.

The dedication of Barbara Bush to literacy has a missionary fervor about it. She is a woman with a mission-to do everything she can, to use all the influence she can muster-to help those in need. For eight years she has responded to every opportunity possible throughout the country: speaking; visiting learning centers; meeting new learners and volunteer tutors; constantly encouraging, supporting, and leading the way in what has now become a national literacy movement.

This odyssey began for Barbara Bush in 1978, when it became clear that her husband would seek high office after a distinguished career as a congressman, U.S. liaison to China, director of the CIA, and ambassador to the United Nations. The wife of a president or a vice president, by custom, lends her prestige to an important and worthwhile cause. For Joan Mondale, it was support of the arts. For Rosalynn Carter, the tragedy of mental illness, Nancy Reagan is well-known for her "Just Say No to Drugs" campaign. This development is natural, for the volunteer service of wives and mothers is a social phenomenon of life in America. The spouses of those in public life can be especially effective in this regard.

Barbara Bush was no exception. From the early days, when George Bush was in the oil business in Midland, Texas, and as the Bush family grew, Barbara devoted her spare time to volunteer work for church, community, hospitals, schools, libraries, and of course, the Republican party. As Barbara Bush says"Some people give time, some money, some their skills and connections, some literally give their life's blood . . . but everyone has something to give."

Now she faced a challenge: what would she devote herself to-if the political fates gave her a rare opportunity and responsibility?

She pondered all the problems that worried her: teen pregnancy, unemployment, crime, health issues, transportation, world peace-fitting subjects for her total devotion, but too much for one person. Which one, then? The more she thought, the more she realized that one pervasive problem in America-illiteracy-relates fundamentally to many other social ills. Illiteracy is not only a tragedy for those afflicted, but it is also clearly a contributor to poverty; unemployment; welfare dependency; substandard workperformance; inability to vote or engage in community affairs; such public-health problems as substance abuse and teen pregnancy; crime; and economic troubles in general. Fighting illiteracy would help alleviate these other problems as well.

At the time, illiteracy was still hidden in the United States, It had not forced its way into the public consciousness: illiterate people are the very opposite of a vocal constituency. They suffer in silence and try to hide their problem in shame. And the United States had been so rich and powerful that society could tolerate the illiteracy problem.

Volunteer agencies, such as Laubach Literacy International, Literacy Volunteers of America, Lutheran Church Women, and others, had long been offering tutoring services to illiterates. The federal government had recently initiated a small program of adult basic-education grants from the Department of Education to the states. But these efforts largely escaped public notice. There was no widespread understanding of the scale and effects of the illiteracy problem.

Barbara Bush learned from the best available research that some 23 million adult Americans are functionally illiterate, unable to read or write beyond the fourth-grade level, and that another 30 to 35 million lack basic skills beyond the eighth-grade level. Many sources confirmed her belief that illiteracy contributes to other social ills. When George Bush was elected Vice President of the United States in 1980, his wife was ready to devote herself to the mission.

That devotion, widespread and varied, resists any easy categorizing. At a moment's notice, Barbara Bush will advance the cause of literacy: speaking; appearing on radio and television; visiting schools, clinics, hospitals, churches, learning centers, prisons, factories, and anywhere she can meet and encourage people.

Often her influence is exerted privately. One evening she found that her banquet seatmate was Harold W. McGraw, Jr., the chief executive officer of the publishing firm of McGraw-Hill. McGraw, nearing retirement age, confided that he was looking for a nonprofit cause to devote himself to. He was talking to the right person. After listening to Barbara Bush, he returned to New York and proceeded to become a highly effective adherent of the cause.

First, he put his time and financial resources into the creation of the Business Council for Effective Literacy, now an important force in the business community's involvement in the literacy movement. Second, McGraw underwrote the first majormedia public-service campaign on illiteracy, undertaken jointly by the Advertising Council and the American Library Association. This in turn led to the creation of the National Literacy Coalition, a forum for the cooperation of nonprofit and government agencies concerned with literacy. And this, in turn, led to the creation of the national literacy hotline, a referral service for those seeking to become involved as learners or tutors.

A major breakthrough occurred in December 1985, when Capital Cities/ ABC and the Public Broadcasting Service announced that they were going to jointly undertake an 18-month public-service campaign on illiteracy. It was to be called "Project Literacy U.S."-PLUS. Barbara Bush gave the PLUS campaign her strong endorsement and support.

The PLUS campaign emphasizes both community outreach and on-air awareness-raising programs. Every ABC and PBS station worked locally to help convene a community literacy coalition-a PLUS Task Force. The initial goal was to achieve 150 task forces. Today there are 383. Only after this effort was well underway did the programing on illiteracy begin-major documentaries on both networks; coverage by every element of ABC News; story lines on literacy in ABC daytime serials and primetime series; a movie called Bluffing It; coverage on the ABC Radio Network and National Public Radio; local tiein programing by ABC and PBS affiliates; and continuing public-service announcements to link the major programing events. PLUS has been so effective that ABC and PBS have extended it. The program is in its third year, heading for its fourth.

Like a true leader, Barbara Bush is quick to praise others. She attributes the emergence of a national literacy movement in the past few years mainly to the PLUS program. James E. Duffy turns that around, Duffy, the president of communications for Capital Cities/ABC and the leader of the PLUS movement for his company, com"When we and PBS were planning PLUS, one of the first people we wanted to see was Barbara Bush. Her warmth and encouragement and guidance were crucial in the design of PLUS and our commitment. Many times we have asked her to appear at PLUS events and for help in other ways. Never once has she failed us. There's no question in my mind that PLUS is what it is and has lasted so long because Barbara Bush paved the way and has helped us so much."

In a sense, Duffy could be speaking for everyone in the literacy field. Barbara Bush is universally regarded as the most important national resource the literacy movement has. Although being the wife of the Republican Vice President is instrumental, her involvement is essentially nonpolitical. Leading Democratic political figures, such as Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, do not hesitate to praise her contributions.

Such effectiveness is the result of Barbara Bush the person-the totality of her commitment; her warmth and depth of understanding; her skill; and above all, her sensitivity to the human dimension.

One of Mrs. Bush's many visits was to a Maryland state prison where inmates have been trained to tutor illiterate fellow inmates-up to 85 percent of many prison populations. She talks about that experience: "All the men in the class I visited-tutors and students both-were really eager to talk about what they were doing and how much it meant to them. I got a little tearful when a young black man-a student-got up in front of all of us and read a letter he had written to me, about how ashamed and angry he had been when he couldn't read or write . . . and how limited his options were for living well . . . and how inevitable it seemed that he would land in jail. And then he said how much freer he felt now, as a literate person, than he had ever felt before, and how different his life would be from now on."

A prison visit is a good way to understand what it is like to be illiterate: many new learners compare being illiterate to being in prison. J. T. Pace compares it to slavery. Others say it is like being blind. All talk about feeling free for the first time in their lives.

When Mrs. Bush visited classes sponsored by the Literacy Coalition in Nashville, Tennessee, she met a young man named Linwood Johnson. His illiteracy had condemned him to "common laboring jobs," he told her, adding that the example of Helen Keller-overcoming both blindness and deafness by learning to read -had inspired him to overcome his own "blindness." So moved was Mrs. Bush that she telephoned Jim Duffy to tell him the story. Linwood Johnson became the PLUS "Learner of the Month" for May 1988 on ABC-TV.

Barbara Bush's five children, their spouses, and her ten grandchildren are reminders that family values promote literacy. "The problem very often begins at home," she points out, "Parents with literacy problems are more likely to raise children who will have problems themselves."

For this reason, helping young children experience the joy of reading is as important to her as aiding adults. Since 1981, Mrs. Bush has been an active board member of Reading Is Fundamental (RIF), a 22-year-old nonprofit organization that has distributed more than 86 million books to children. With her twin granddaughters, Mrs. Bush visited the National Zoo in Washington last May for the televised hatching of the "Readasaurus" egg; "Readasaurus" is an imaginary breed of dinosaur that has survived because it learned to read. Out of the egg popped twin puppets-Rex and Rita Readasaurus. Live on television, they invited children to send them adult-signed postcards listing three books read during the summer. By summer's end, more than one million children had sent postcards to the twins at the National Zoo -more than 3 million books read!

Everything tends to come full circle. Barbara Bush had helped both PLUS and the National Literacy Coalition. Now these organizations joined together to plan a gala event, the "National Literacy Honors," in Washington on November 15, with every sector in the literacy movement invited to participate in honoring Barbara Bush as "the outstanding national leader in the literacy movement" and to pay tribute to 17 PLUS "Learners of the Month," representing the people Mrs. Bush cares about the most-the hundreds of thousands of Americans who have courageously overcome their illiteracy since she began her work.

Barbara Bush knows as well as anyone that illiteracy is a long-term problem, not subject to quick fixes. But she also knows that literacy is good news, with tremendous positive potential for individuals, communities, and the nation alike. We may be sure of one thing: no matter what course her life may take, her commitment to literacy will continue.

She sums it up well: "I honestly don't know of a more important gift' that anyone can give than the gift of literacy."
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Title Annotation:Barbara Bush and the national literacy movement; includes related article on literacy in Japan
Author:Harr, John Ensor
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Dec 1, 1988
Previous Article:Two festivals of light.
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