Willie Chester Martin managed to join the U.S. Navy, hold down multiple jobs and support his family while his wife stayed home to raise their four children.
Martin, 75, did it all, but never really learned to read.
Martin even signed up for help with Memphis Literacy Council, the precursor to Literacy Mid-South, but life got in the way and he dropped out.
Now, he’s re-enrolled and this time is being tutored by his granddaughter, Erica Roberts, adult learning coordinator with Literacy Mid-South.
The family, which includes nine grandchildren, is close, but Martin’s inability to read wasn’t talked about. “It was just something that never crossed my mind at all,” Roberts said.
She didn’t know her grandfather had tried to learn to read with help from the nonprofit until her mother mentioned it after Roberts was hired there.
And being the type who doesn’t let things go, Roberts decided she’d help her grandfather finish what he’d started.
“I just felt like, if I have the resources and the opportunity and after all the things my grandparents have done for me, I have to do something,” Roberts said.
“She just mentioned to me and asked me if I’d be interested and I said yes,” Martin said. “She made me realize I wasn’t too old.”
It’s not uncommon for folks to hide their inability to read from family, said Kevin Dean, Literacy Mid-South executive director.
They’ve had people speak at groups about the program, but had to “come out” to their families first about the inability to read, Dean said.
“This story we’ve heard before, just not with our own employees,” he said. “I think it took all of us by surprise that he had been a student here and she didn’t even know it.”
Martin grew up near Water Valley, Miss., in Yalobusha County and at first attended a one-room school. He loved it.
Then his family moved from the rural area to town, where he had to repeat the fifth grade and was bullied by students and teachers for his learning difficulties. “School was like going to prison,” Martin recalled.
His granddaughter suspects he had a learning disability that would have been tested for today.
By 1955 he was 18 and in the 11th grade. That’s when he quit school to join the Navy.
Martin had wanted to make the Navy a career, but again reading held him back. He left after four years.
By 1967, he was married and had a family. They were living in Chicago, but his wife didn’t like it there so they moved to Memphis.
Over the years, Martin typically worked two jobs, spending 22 years at a now-closed machine shop.
He’d been taught by his mother to speak well, had learned to fill out job applications, to dress neatly and to closely follow instructions once he got hired.
But always, his poor reading skills created a roadblock toward advancement.
“Every job I got, I would move up the line, but my education stopped me,” Martin said.
Now, Roberts hopes she and her grandfather can be an example for others, where secrets keep family members from helping each other.
“There’s really no excuse not to reach back within your own family and do something,” Roberts said.
Roberts works with her grandfather using adult reading materials and he’s seen his confidence grow as a reader.
They’re also reading “Life is So Good,” a book by and about George Dawson who learned to read at 98 years old and died at 103.
Martin has similar plans once his reading skills improve.
“I just want to be able to get a book and maybe read a book or two, read the Bible better, get a little more understanding,” he said.
He’d also like to be able to understand the papers he receives from the Memphis VA Medical Center.
“And to write his own story someday,” Roberts said. “That’s his main goal.”