Saturday, December 31, 1994


Daily News of Los Angeles: December 16, 1994 by Betty Kwong

Through perseverance and hard work, Chuck Prentiss climbed from glass cleaner to owner of a company that makes mirrors for special effects and satellites.

He is an artist and a past president of the Burbank Rotary Club, and he has put both his children through private schools. Prentiss himself graduated
from private schools and spent 1-1/2 years in college.

For most of his life, he has managed to keep a secret from most people he encountered.

He could barely read.

Now, at 52, he finally is beginning to learn.

About a year ago, Prentiss said he saw a simple notice in an electricity bill about the Burbank Public Library's literacy program - and decided that maybe it was time he learned to read well.

Once a week since then, Prentiss has met with a volunteer tutor at the library, where he painstakingly works on skills he should have acquired in grammar school.

"A simple word like 'laugh,' I had a hell of a time with that. I was in the 'la' part of the dictionary . . . 'laf.' It's frustrating," Prentiss said, from his corner office at Keim Precision Mirrors Corp. in Burbank.

Prentiss squeaked by in school with barely passing grades by reading and re-reading only the simplest words in a sentence and then guessing at its meaning.

"I could read most of the words, except for those over six or seven letters," he said.

Prentiss is hardly alone in being a latecomer to literacy.

A 1992 State Adult Literacy Survey showed nearly one in four Californians age 16 and older have trouble comprehending a simple paragraph.

In the Valley, there are 34 programs that offer adult literacy lessons, with four of them through local libraries, according to the Literacy Network of Greater Los Angeles Inc.

Library literacy programs across the city are struggling to meet the demand for services, said Larry Nash, volunteer services librarian at the city of Los Angeles Library Department.

Other organizations, many of them reliant on grants and donations, also are feeling the pinch.

Earlier this month, the Glendale YWCA said it does not have money to replace the retiring director of its 21-year-old literacy program.

"There is so much need and it seems like services are being cut left and right," said Patricia Smart, coordinator of the Burbank literacy program.

Since the Burbank library began offering literacy tutoring in June 1993, about 125 people have enrolled - many of them sales and clerical workers, Smart said.

"There was a time when there was a stereotype that people who had trouble reading and writing were stupid, that they were blue collar people," she said. "There's an increased recognition that people in higher-level jobs need literacy improvement, too."

That includes presidents and owners of companies.

Prentiss has been tested and, unlike those who have visual problems or are dyslexic, has no physical conditions that have kept him from learning to read.

He believes he simply missed the literacy boat when he switched from public schools to private schools in Los Angeles in the fifth grade.

"The only thing I can figure out was the private school and the public school were teaching at different paces and I lost the year in which you learned phonetics," Prentiss said.

By masking his poor spelling skills with illegible handwriting and having secretaries and his wife read for him, Prentiss said he has succeeded nonetheless.

But that success also may have been his albatross when it came to learning to read.

"I think what kept people away from me as far as saying, 'Are you stupid? Why can't you read?' is I always had a lot of money," Prentiss said. ''I was driving a Lincoln Continental, I lived in a nice house. I had a lifestyle not of an illiterate person. It's hard to put me down when I make more money than they do."

He says the lesson he missed 41 years ago has had a profound effect on his life.

When one of his inventions - a glass and mirror contraption with lights that seem to spiral into infinity - attracted national attention, the University of California, Irvine, offered him a teaching job in its art department.

"It scared the hell out of me. I said, 'No,' really quick," Prentiss said.

He turned down the request not because he could not teach, but because he would have stumbled on something as simple as reading the student roster.

"What I see is a missing brick in a foundation, causing a crack all the way through. It was something I tried to hide all my life," Prentiss said. ''Look how far I've gone. Think of what I could've done if I could've been able to read. Who knows what I have missed."

Today, Prentiss' goal is to be able to read a newspaper effortlessly.

"If I don't accomplish it, it's not because I didn't try," said Prentiss, who seldom travels without the tape recording of his tutor sounding out alphabets.

He doesn't blame the public and private school systems for failing him.

"I did have a teacher that wanted to help me . . . . I was just too proud to go over there and work with her," Prentiss said. "I failed myself."

For information on literacy programs in the Los Angeles area, call the Literacy Referral Line at (800) 707-READ.