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Literacy Volunteer Receives Presidential Honors

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Literacy Volunteer Receives Presidential Honors


Literacy Volunteer Receives Presidential Honors

Literacy Volunteer Receives Presidential Honors

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Ruth Johnson Colvin is one of 10 people who will be honored this coming week with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Colvin dedicated her life to literacy in 1962 when she discovered that more than 11,000 people in her hometown of Syracuse, N.Y., functionally couldn't read. It led her to create Literacy Volunteers or America which today has more than 125 affiliates.


Thousands of adults, maybe even hundreds of thousands, have learned to read thanks to the work of Ruth Johnson Colvin. Ms. Colvin founded Literacy Volunteers of America 44 years ago. This week, President Bush announced that she will be one of 10 Americans to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The ceremony will take place on December 15th at the White House. Ms. Colvin joins me now from Syracuse, New York, where her organization is based. And we should mention, it merged with another group and is now called ProLiteracy Worldwide. First of all, congratulations, Ms. Colvin.

Ms. RUTH JOHNSON COLVIN (Literacy Volunteers of America): Well, thank you. It's a little bit overwhelming.

ELLIOTT: So tell me the story of how you became a literacy advocate.

Ms. COLVIN: Well, if you remember in the - you don't remember probably, but in the late 1950s, illiteracy was not considered a problem in America. It was only a problem in India, Africa, Asia. And I got my church interested in giving our mission money, because I don't believe in proselytizing, to the World Council of Churches that was doing work in an African country. And my conscience was clear. But the 1960 census came out and said there were 11,000 functional illiterates, not in Asia or Africa, but in Syracuse, my city. Who were they? Why couldn't they read? What was being done? Nothing.

So I had a coffee inviting top leaders in the city, including the Board of Education members, suggesting what are we doing? Nothing was being done. And it was one woman, who was the head of Church Women United, that asked me to speak to her group, and they decided to sponsor me. So it was women volunteers that first started it. And from then, we grew. And what I've tried to do is to tap into other people's skills and talents. You can't do it alone. And whether it's people from the Syracuse University, whether it's other organizations, I've just learned. And people have been wonderful, whether it's in fund development, whether it's in organization, whether it's in training within literacy, and then of course we went into enlist the speakers of other languages. I just couldn't imagine a life without reading.

ELLIOTT: Do you remember the first adult that you taught to read?

Ms. COLVIN: Yes. One of the first adults, I don't know if it was the first one, but one of the first ones was a minister in a storefront church who was a leader of his people - had never been to school, from the South, had worked in the cotton fields, came up here, and he couldn't read. He invited me to his church. And at that time they didn't mix, the blacks and the whites, so it was unusual for me to go. He opened the Bible and he supposedly read. I knew he couldn't read. He had memorized it. He was a leader.

ELLIOTT: He had memorized the Bible to preach to his congregation?

Ms. COLVIN: Not the whole Bible, but he knew enough verses that he could open the Bible, he didn't know where it was, and he could read to them. Now, doesn't education automatically make you a leader? Not necessarily. But he knew that if he could learn to read and write how much more he'd be able to do. This impressed me. He was a wonderful man.

ELLIOTT: So you tutored him?

Ms. COLVIN: Yes, I tutored him. I've learned so much more since that in how to do it. I wished I could have done a better job with him. But you know, you learn by your mistakes and you learn from others. And so as I've learned more, what I try to do is share it with others.

ELLIOTT: Now, Mrs. Colvin, I read in your hometown paper there in Syracuse that you will be celebrating your 90th birthday on the day after the White House ceremony. I'm not going to ask you to confirm or deny that report, but I would think that this is not a bad way to mark your life's work.

Ms. COLVIN: It's not a bad way. I pride myself on the fact that I still play 18 holes of golf. I pride myself that I exercise every morning. I pride myself that I write books. I'm in two book clubs. I do reports. I give talks. I don't think age should be set down as a mark, except I'm pleased to have a birthday party this way. Not bad.

ELLIOTT: Mrs. Colvin, it has been a pleasure to talk with you today. Thank you.

Ms. COLVIN: Thank you.

ELLIOTT: Ruth Johnson Colvin will be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom next Friday for her work as a leading literacy teacher and advocate. The medal that Mrs. Colvin will receive is the nation's highest civilian honor. It was established by President Truman in 1945 to recognize civilian efforts during World War II.

One of the other winners this year is bluesman B.B. King, and I never pass up an opportunity to hear a little from the King of the Blues.

(Soundbite of music)

ELLIOTT: B.B. King playing his beloved guitar, Lucille. The Mississippi native embarks on his 60th anniversary tour in January. He is one of 10 Americans set to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom at a White House ceremony this week.

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