Olympic-level “Firsts” for Ray Williams

February 15, 2018

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by Janice F. Booth

“This year I got the best Christmas present ever; I got to read to my grandkids.” Reading to his grandchildren is one of many “firsts” for Ray Williams. “My dad, Herbert Scurlock, is bedridden. This Christmas, for the first time, I was able to go over to his house and read [to] him the Christmas card I’d gotten for him.” Ray is determined to turn these “firsts” into regular events. Determination is one of the hallmarks of Ray’s character.

Tall, slim, and quietly confident, Ray has worked hard all his life. He has always had to rely on himself, make his own way in the world. Without the ability to read or write, he has taught himself engineering, auto and marine mechanics, and countless other skills. Ray is articulate and not afraid to talk about his life experiences and the wisdom he has acquired on his life’s journey. He speaks easily of the struggles he has faced – as a boy, homelessness, as a young man, untrained and searching for work wherever he could find it. For the last twenty years, Ray has worked in local marinas.

Ray has accomplished all this without being able to read or write. “I had to trust people, depend on my friends, because I couldn’t read the street signs, or write a check, or read a contract I was asked to sign. That was tough.”

“I had to pretend that I could read the address when my boss would send me out to pick up materials. I would try to match the words to the street signs or ask directions of someone I trusted. I learned to compensate, but I never felt comfortable. I was always anxious that I’d miss something because I couldn’t read, or I wouldn’t be able to do what I had to do because I couldn’t write.”

Ray has been determined to make things better for his family, his sons, and stepdaughter. He’s provided them with a home, an education, a future. Ray tried, over the years to improve his reading and writing skills. Years ago, he signed up with the Anne Arundel County Literacy Council for tutoring in reading and writing. He worked hard with the help of his tutor, but he had a full-time job to do, bills pay, life again interfered. Ray set aside tutoring, but with some minimal improvement in his reading skills.

Recently, as he faced his 60th birthday, Ray made up his mind it was now-or-never. If he was going to be able to read and write he would have to get busy. Over dinner, he confided his plight to his friend Curt Wells. Curt encouraged Ray to get some help, now! He contacted the Literacy Council Director and set up an appointment for Ray. “Thanks to Mr. Well’s encouragement I got back into tutoring.” Ray is one of those exceptionally talented people who learn quickly and remembers perfectly what he has experienced hands-on. He’s high-energy. Ray has little patience for “sitting around,” particularly when there’s work to be done. That high-energy makes it hard for Ray to tolerate the slow pace his reading skills demand. He’d like to skip right to the writing of emails and reports and the reading of newspapers and those pesky directions on paint cans and in obtuse handbooks for new equipment.

This time, however, Ray recognizes that to get to the skills level he’s shooting for will take a bit more time and practice. So, he’s harnessing that energy and keeping his eye on the prize. And, in addition to the joy of reading to his dad and his grandchildren, Ray recently added another “first” experience to his list. He has his first library card, which he intends to use.

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