- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 15, 2000


''Today is going to be a weird day."

Sitting at a long wooden desk in a classroom at the Lincoln Instructional Center, George Dawson copies this sentence, the original having been written by his teacher, Carl Henry, on the same page.

Mr. Dawson's hand is slow and steady, and his penmanship is careful, spidery. All things considered, he's doing remarkably well: Mr. Dawson turned 102 years old last month. He began learning how to read only four years ago.

On Feb. 2, Random House published his first book, "Life Is So Good," co-authored by Washington state elementary school teacher Richard Glaubman. The size of the first printing, 100,000 copies, hints at hopes for the best-seller list. Publicity manager Liz Fogarty calls the book "one of our lead titles for the spring."

This is all a bit unexpected for a man who, at age 98, just wanted to learn to read his Bible.

Mr. Dawson's late pursuit of education and his remarkable life laying railroad tracks in East Texas before the Depression, riding bulls, raising seven children, outliving several wives, witnessing the horrors of racism firsthand sound like the stuff of best sellers.

"Life Is So Good" opens with Mr. Dawson, at age 10, watching the lynching of a 17-year-old farm worker named Pete in downtown Marshall, Texas, a memory he no longer wishes to talk about.

A Fort Worth Star-Telegram article in January 1998 led to Mr. Dawson's appearance on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and a story in People magazine, and eventually brought a Washington teacher to his door with dreams of a book.

Mr. Glaubman first heard of Mr. Dawson in February 1998. He showed the newspaper article to his class of fourth-graders and, seeing their interest, thought the story might make a good children's book.

Mr. Dawson agreed, opening his small house to the stranger from Washington, letting him live there during interviews because Mr. Glaubman didn't have money for hotels.

At Mr. Dawson's age, it's hard to change your routine. So Mr. Glaubman quickly got used to talking with Mr. Dawson as the sun was rising. Mr. Dawson's prescription for living is this: waking every day at 5 a.m., making a cup of hot chocolate, eating two pieces of bread folded over and drinking a glass of hot water.

Then, he's off to school his teacher picks him up every weekday morning and drops him off every afternoon.

Mr. Dawson lets little interfere with his commitment to learning: The only three days he's missed school since he started at Lincoln Instructional in December 1996 have been to attend funerals.

Mr. Dawson still makes his own biscuits and corn bread, offers a firm handshake and walks without help. A doff of his hat reveals a full head of gray hair, neatly parted. He always wears a hat because "I don't like the cold wind blowing through my hair."

Mr. Glaubman remembers well their first encounter.

"I had some misconceptions about age, so I didn't expect this very healthy man with this strong voice. He was doing just fine. He had a memory as good as anybody's could be, and he was so at peace with himself and what he was doing."

Eventually, Mr. Glaubman realized that a children's book couldn't capture all of George. During those crack-of-dawn encounters, "I'd say, 'Tell me more about this,' and one story would lead to another. I wouldn't know what I was missing until I got back up here; the questions would pile up. And I'd go back down. New things always came up. I didn't have an outline. I didn't know where it was going."

But the story emerged. Mr. Dawson, born in a log cabin in Marshall in East Texas, was the oldest child and had to help support his family. He didn't have time to go to school. His grandmother taught him slave songs, which he can still sing in a clear, strong voice if asked. He built levees, played baseball and rambled from Canada to Mexico to St. Louis to New Orleans.

Eventually, he settled down and worked for 20 years at Oak Farms Dairy, where he once had a shot at a promotion. But he couldn't write his name, and the job went to a man who could.

"Writing my name that was one of the grandest things I learned," he says now, his eyes shining, his smile widening. "I like to talk about what the people did for me and what I did for myself. I didn't know how to write my name. I wrote X's. That was my name for 100 years, that X. That was all I had."

At first, Mr. Glaubman pitched his original concept, a children's book, to publishing houses without much luck.

"It was OK," he said. "But by the time I was done I realized there was a lot missing. [Mr. Dawson] and his son saw a story that would be uplifting to people in the community and kids in junior high, the kids most in need of help."

Children are, without question, Mr. Dawson's main concern. Ask him what you will, but probably sooner than later he will steer the conversation back to children.

"I want 'em to remember this old man here," Mr. Dawson said, tapping the cover of his book. "He lived and died and done everything he could to help the little ones. I loved every little kid. I tell the kids, 'If you go to school, you'll learn something.' Kids don't want to; they don't treat their parents right. I don't know what the world has come to."

He also has some criticism for parents.

"[There are] so many children without fathers," he said. "If someone could get it in their mind to sit down and watch children and don't ever hit him on his head. I tell 'em all that. I never was hit on the head; I never forgot nothin'. Every man should be at home with his child, let him know what home is. Teach him the good side of life."

Mr. Glaubman eventually connected with an agent, Harriet Wasserman, in March 1999, sending her a portion of the book that would become "Life." She sold it to Random House about three weeks later.

"I was totally in shock," Mr. Glaubman said. "For about four days I couldn't write."

All the attention pleases Mr. Dawson, but not so much that he doesn't want to get back into Mr. Henry's classroom. He smiles shyly, allows that he doesn't know any other 102-year-old first-time authors, and says the book is "fine."

"It was something I didn't have no idea what it was going to be," he said.

His teacher, Mr. Henry, calls him an excellent student.

"He's in the fifth-grade reading book; when he goes home, he reads the Bible. He was given a Bible when he was on 'Oprah,' but he still reads his own, I think," Mr. Henry said.

Mr. Dawson doesn't think much about how much longer he has: waste of time, he says.

"If you could put remembrance in front of you, it's lots behind you that you learned," he said. "I think the world ought to be better. Back in them days, I'd say, 'Loan me $10, and I'll pay you tomorrow.' And the next day I'd have his $10. A promise back in them days was something you could keep. My life been a good life all my life. I have rambled from place to place. I've enjoyed my life. The world don't owe me nothin', not nothin'. A good life is worth living."

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