George Dawson packed a lot of living into his 105 years, but it wasn’t until he learned to read and write at the age of 98 that he realized two longtime dreams: reading the Bible and writing his name.
Last Saturday, at Ann Arbor’s Family Learning Institute, Dawson’s granddaughter, Karessa Dawson Lang spoke to a group of reading students about her grandfather.
She told them he’d said, ”People have read the Bible to me all my life, but I wanted to read it for myself.” When he was finally able to read the Bible for himself, Lang told the children, “For him, that was the greatest accomplishment of all time. Besides writing his name. Which was huge.”
The visit to FLI was part of two days of activities for Lang and her sister, Mashelle Dawson, involving their late grandfather’s 2000 autobiography, “Life Is So Good,” the featured book of Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti Reads. The two flew up to Ann Arbor from Texas last week.
Launched in 2003 by the University of Michigan Life Sciences & Society Program and now co-sponsored by the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti district libraries, Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti Reads promotes reading and civic dialogue through reading and discussing a common book. The program’s theme this year is “What Makes Life Worth Living?”
In his autobiography, George Dawson, Sr. reflected on his life, which began in one century, spanned a second, and ended in a third. He was the grandson of slaves. Lang said her grandfather – she and the other grandchildren called him Jump Daddy – credited his attitude to trust in God.
“He prayed about it, left it with God, and whatever will be, will be,” she said. “He didn’t worry about anything.”
“He believed in the simple things. As long as you had sufficient food, housing, and clothes, then everything was all right, everything was good. And even in cases where the Lord took people home, he felt that was a good thing, too. Because it meant they were going to be with the Lord.
One of his mottos: “If it can be done by anyone, it can be done by you.”
The lifelong Dallas resident didn’t go to school because he worked in the fields to help his parents, then worked to support his own seven children, Lang told the students. George Dawson, Sr. died in 2001 at the age of 105 following a stroke and a fall.
Lang said she was shocked to learn that her grandfather couldn’t read because he could give detailed directions to any address in Dallas, and could talk about any subject matter. She later learned he relied heavily on memorizing information to get by.
“So when he said he was going to school, I said, ‘Going to school for what? At 98 years old?’”
She laughed recalling the day her father took his father to buy school supplies and a backpack. From then on, he’d stand on his front porch every morning wearing his backpack and waiting for his ride to the adult literacy program.
“He was so excited to go to school!” Lang said, before encouraging the kids to appreciate their own education. “One day, he came in and said, ‘Big Legs, let me show you something,’” she said, adding with a laugh that every grandchild had descriptive pet name. “And he got out his pen and started writing his name. He had never written his name before.”
She later learned her grandfather once missed a promotion at his job at a local dairy because he couldn’t sign his name on the paperwork. That was a painful experience he never forgot. Even so, he kept his spirits up. So much so, that when he was 100, he said: “I do believe it’s getting better every day.”
Lang asked the dozen students in the audience what they hope to be when they grow up, and then stressed the importance of reading in each profession.
When one boy said he wanted to be a pro football player, Mashelle Dawson noted with a smile that he’ll need to be able to read the contract.
Lang said her grandfather compensated for illiteracy all those years by diligently memorizing information everywhere he went. She figures that’s why his memory was so keen, and why he was able to fill a book with historical facts.
She told the kids that her grandfather got over his fear of sharing his life with a white man who co-wrote the autobiography, Richard Glaubman. The two ended up becoming good friends, the book was well reviewed, and his memories were preserved forever.
“So don’t be afraid,” she told the students. “Sometimes you have to take a chance.”
She also told them to follow her grandfather’s advice to give everything their best effort, or not do it at all.
“You know how you do your best at something you love doing?” she asked. “Well, even the things you don’t love doing, do your best and you may start loving it. And then when you start accomplishing things, and making good grades, and moving forward, you may start to like it.”
Family Learning Institute provides tutoring to low-income elementary school students in the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti area. Board president Jeff Harrold said the talk reminded the kids to value the ability to read – something so many take for granted.
“We’re in a knowledge-based economy, especially in our state,” he said. “The old economy of making a living with your muscles is past. We’re going to have to help our kids read and write and take advantage of everything they can in this knowledge-based economy. We had kids today who said they wanted to be pilots and dentists and doctors and novelists and police officers. That’s going to take a literate work force, and we’re happy to do our part here to help those kids reach those goals.”
Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti Reads is co-sponsored by the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti district libraries and is supported by civic groups, the University of Michigan School of LS&A, the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti public schools, local bookstores, Eastern Michigan University Libraries and Washtenaw Community College. For more information about events related to this year’s book, check out the Reads website.
About the author: Jo Mathis is an Ann Arbor-based writer. Her work appears monthly in The Chronicle.