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Winkler gives thumbs-up to positive thinking

MICHAEL LIGHTSTONE STAFF REPORTER 

From the Halifax Chronicle Herald

Called a “dumb dog” as a child, the boy from the Big Apple with undiagnosed dyslexia grew up.

He grew to become an Ivy League school alumnus, Broadway actor, TV performer, film director, producer and author.

Now, at 68, Henry Winkler can look back at his salad days secure in the knowledge that a learning disability may be a fact of life for many people, but it doesn’t render one incapable of achieving personal goals or success.

He survived his learning-challenged youth and disparaging parents to make it in show business. But it wasn’t easy, Winkler said.

“I was the king of negative thinking,” he told a Halifax audience Thursday.

Winkler was one of the featured speakers at an education conference. His message to attendees assembled at a downtown convention hall was the power of positive thinking can carry a person a long way, even to the culmination of a dream.

“Don’t put a period on the end of a negative thought,” said the Yale School of Drama-trained actor, who was a star of the television sitcom Happy Days and a cast member in other series, such as Arrested Development.

“There is no nutritional value in negative thinking.”

In 2003, Winkler began writing a series of comedic children’s books with Lin Oliver called Hank Zipzer: The World’s Greatest Underachiever. They’re influenced by the entertainer’s struggles throughout his education due to his learning difficulties.

The first time he read an adult novel he was in his early 30s, Winkler told delegates at the third annual Emergent Learning Conference. He said he still has trouble with spelling and can’t use a dictionary.

“We have to make the most out of ourselves,” Winkler said, “because … every one of you is a unique combination of qualities.”

His talk was a one-man presentation that was part inspirational speech, part standup comedy routine, part career retrospective and part promotional pitch for the children’s books. Winkler used a slide show to augment entertaining anecdotes, short stories sprinkled with self-deprecating humour.

Eliciting laughs and spontaneous applause from the audience, Winkler described the writing process with Oliver and the offers they received to turn their books into a children’s TV series.

He said only one company in the United States wanted to produce a show based on the Hank Zipzer material.

“And they said: ‘We’re just going to make one small change. If it’s all right with you, can we make Hank less dyslexic?’” Winkler said.

“We said: ‘Thank you very much — goodbye.’”

A television series developed from the books is in its second season on the BBC in England, Winkler said.

According to the Learning Disabilities Association of Canada, one in 10 Canadians has such a condition. It says learning disabilities may be due to heredity, problems during pregnancy and birth, or incidents after birth.

Learning disabilities affect people differently. The association says it’s never too late to seek help.

“Testing specialists are available for people of all ages, and assistance is available for every stage of life,” its website says.

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