Henry Winkler discusses struggle with dyslexia at SOKY Book Fest

Jacob Parker

Henry Winkler, perhaps best known for his role as Fonzie in the 1970s sitcom “Happy Days,” and as author of the Hank Zipzer children’s book series, headlined the fifteenth annual Southern Kentucky Book Festival at the Knicely Conference Center on Saturday morning.

Winkler told the story of his own life and the struggle of living with dyslexia.

Before the conference began, hundreds of people lined up outside the room, anticipating “the Fonz.” Applause erupted as he walked in.

Winkler began speaking about his early life and troubles in school.

“English was hard, history was hard, French was hard. Never took French,” Winkler joked.

Growing up, Winkler said his parents never gave him much encouragement. However, Winkler had a dream of being an actor, and after applying to 28 different colleges, he was accepted to two.

He eventually earned his MFA from the Yale School of Drama in 1970, before beginning his career as an actor in commercials, eventually becoming Fonzie on “Happy Days.”

All the while, Winkler struggled with dyslexia, even though he didn’t know what was wrong. Winkler said he found out he was dyslexic when they went to diagnose his son, Jett, and Winkler recognized that he shared the symptoms. When Winkler finally found out about his dyslexia, he was 31 years old.

After discovering that he was dyslexic, Winkler said he was relieved to know that there was a name to what had been plaguing him. Winkler said that it is essential to encourage children who have dyslexia so that they know they’re not just behind everyone else.

“Without self-image, living is almost impossible,” he said. “You’re constantly trying to play catch-up.”

Winkler said that up until that point, he would have friends and co-stars help him read scripts. Winkler attributes his success to never letting go of his dream.

“If you will it, it is not a dream,” he said. “If you know what you want, and you don’t have to know it right now, but once you know, don’t ever let your dream leave the forefront of your mind.”

Winkler spoke directly to the children in the auditorium about their capabilities, and how they can achieve anything that they set their minds to.

“How you learn has nothing to do with how powerful and intelligent you are,” he said.

Winkler said that everyone has their own special talent and that they should pursue it. After starring in multiple television and movie roles, Winkler created a children’s book series about a dyslexic fourth grader, Hank Zipzer, based on his own life growing up.

Winkler closed with a question and answer session, which included, by request, a rendition of the classic Fonzie character. Afterward, he held a book signing in the Book Fest event room.

Marilyn Hopkins, Edmonson County native, and her grandson, Skyler, attended the event. Hopkins said she loved Winkler as Fonzie.

“I think he’s a great person, he relates to everybody,” she said.

Skyler, 10, said that he’s recently gotten into Winkler’s book series. Skyler said he likes that Winkler talks about a serious issue like dyslexia.

“His speech was good because it shows he’s not just being funny,” he said.