Man of Letters

updated 04/06/1998 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/06/1998 AT 01:00 AM EDT

AS YOU MIGHT EXPECT, AT 98 George Dawson had pretty much seen it all. He had survived four wives, four siblings, one of his seven children and decades of grueling jobs. Long retired, Dawson had grown a lot of his own food, cooked most of his own meals and spent afternoons catching bass in lakes near his Dallas home. But there was one skill he had never acquired—until two years ago, when a teacher from a local adult education program came visiting. When the man made him an offer, Dawson was hooked. "I'm tired of fishing," he said. "It's time to learn to read."

Today, after two years in literacy class—his fellow students, some of them eight decades his junior, helped him celebrate his 100th birthday on Jan. 18—Dawson has learned to read at the third-grade level, write his name in a lovely cursive script and recite the alphabet backward and forward. "He's like a magnet," says his teacher Carl Henry. "We've had people enroll just because he was here." Dawson is so proud of his skill that on Sundays, at Holiness Church of God, nothing short of throat-clearing from his pastor reminds him that he has read aloud from the Bible long enough.

Surely if anyone is to be forgiven a bit of pride, it should be Dawson, the grandson of a slave and the oldest son of a farmer so poor he put the boy to work at age 8 and rented him out as a day laborer at 12. As an adult, Dawson worked such backbreaking jobs as hauling logs at a sawmill and laying ties for the first railroad in East Texas. Ashamed, Dawson tried the best he could to keep his illiteracy secret. It wasn't until his 10th decade that he confirmed what he had long suspected. "I always thought I could drive a spike as good as any man and cook as good as any woman," he says. "I just figured if everybody else can learn to read, I could too."

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