- Associated Press - Sunday, November 20, 2016

ANDERSON, Ind. (AP) - Sitting in his conference room lined with law books, lawyer Zaki Ali placed the edge of a sheet of paper under a line he wanted to read in an article, covering the remainder of the page with the paper itself to reduce the stimulation caused by the text.

It’s a strategy the successful criminal lawyer practicing in several counties, including Madison, Delaware and Marion, learned a long time ago to deal with dyslexia.

“I don’t get things with the first sitting,” he admitted. “Prior to going to college, it was shared with me that fluorescent light and glossy paper are not my friends.”

Born 50 years ago in Peoria, Illinois, to Girtha L. Gulley and Cleo Dailey, Ali is among the 3 percent to 7 percent of the population believed to have dyslexia.

The youngest of five children, Ali conceded his is an unlikely story of success. Many black men his age are dead or in prison due to the guns, drugs and violence prevalent in his Peoria neighborhood.

Like many of his classmates and neighbors, Ali was raised by a single parent in Peoria’s Taft Homes public housing project, faced educational challenges and was a teenage father, each of which is known as a factor that can impede success.

Even so, Ali’s college-educated mother found ways to get her son the help he needed.

“If she didn’t have that background, I’d be dead, in prison or in an insane asylum,” he said. “Mom was such a Renaissance woman; she understood I was going through stuff academically. It was a slow-but-sure methodical building of the child into a young man and into the man you see here today.”

Ali said he enjoyed kindergarten and first grade, but school became less enjoyable the more he fell behind. By third grade, he became a behavioral problem in the classroom, leading to the washing of a lot of chalkboards after school, he said.

“At first, I just really, really enjoyed learning, and things went downhill from there,” he said. “I was too embarrassed I couldn’t read, and then all the kids were laughing. . I eventually did learn to read but not at grade level. It was hard to keep up with my peers.”

Though his older brother thrived at the Catholic school he eventually attended, that created a new set of problems for Ali, who described his childhood as lonely.

“It was even more magnified that we were poor because we went to the Catholic school. We didn’t have to wear uniforms, but we wore the same outfit three times a week,” he said. “With the glasses and being overweight, that was just a lightning rod for the other kids.”

School administrators and teachers strongly suggested Ali be placed in a self-contained special education classroom with students who had a variety of physical, emotional and intellectual disabilities.

“I was confused. I didn’t know how to take that,” he said. “They were way worse off because I had all my faculties. I had all my arms and legs.”

At one point, Ali was told by a teacher he had “quick eyes,” meaning he scanned things he read too quickly without being able to absorb what it meant. Still, he said, most of those teachers were helpful.

But he wasn’t diagnosed with dyslexia until the spring of his senior year at Peoria’s Manual High School, from which he graduated with a grade point average of 1.67 on a 4.0 scale. In addition, he received a score of 7 - the average is a 20 - on the ACT college admissions exam.

Always expected to attend college, Ali spent his first year at a community college before transferring to Southeast Missouri State University, where he majored in public relations and marketing, graduating with a 2.79 GPA.

Though Ali had some false starts toward a professional career in football, he ended up earning a master’s degree in human resource training and development, graduating with a 3.46 GPA from the University of Wisconsin.

“The analytical learning didn’t take place till I set foot on the University of Wisconsin’s campus,” he said.

He went on to work for five years as a sales representative for Eli Lilly & Co. in Cincinnati, ranking as No. 1 for four consecutive years. His goal was to go into senior management.

But a personal tragedy took Ali’s career down a different path.

Gulley had managed to raise her standard of living, buying a home Ali still owns on the south side of Peoria and joining a not-for-profit board of directors. When another board member allegedly mishandled money and falsified board minutes, Ali said his mother unjustly spent five months in a federal prison in Lexington, Kentucky.

“This is a woman without a speeding ticket,” he said. “Of course, I’m still bitter to this day. But at that point, the public defender she had didn’t treat her with the respect and dignity she deserved.”

Ali entered the Salmon P. Chase College of Law while working during the day at Lilly and paying his way as he went.

“I couldn’t undo the wrong that happened to my mother, but I could help others who are similarly situated,” he said. “That’s why I take every client’s case personally.”

Ali started his law career working in the Indiana attorney general’s office before working a little more than a year in the Madison County prosecutor’s office. In March 2002, he went into private practice and estimates he has successfully tried more than 100 jury and bench trials.

“Have I had some success in saving lives? Yes,” he said. “I thank God daily I can do this job because I truly enjoy it.”

No one is prouder of Ali’s accomplishments than two of the people he credits with helping him get to where he is: Kathy Hoppenrath, his special education teacher at Manual, and Bob Smith, his football coach first at Manual and later at Southeast Missouri.

For Ali, Hoppenrath, who retired from Manual in 2008, was one of the two most important women in his life, the other being his mother. Even as he eulogized his mother at her funeral, Hoppenrath said, he mentioned his former teacher’s role in his life.

“He’s always made me feel like an extremely important part of his life,” she said.

Hoppenrath, in turn, described Ali as compassionate, tenacious and motivated.

“I like to think I felt that way about all my kids, but there definitely was something about Zaki that made us want to go that extra mile,” she said.

Though Ali did well enough on the field to attend a Division I school, he couldn’t make the grade to get in, so Smith recruited him to Southeast Missouri as an offensive guard.

“His reputation preceded him in terms of being a hard worker,” Smith said. “He was coachable and so understanding. He wanted so desperately to get better intellectually and athletically.”

Smith would be the first to say that he never could have predicted the level of Ali’s future success based on his academic abilities.

“He didn’t let anyone down,” he said. “He’s such an impressive man now.”

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Source: The (Anderson) Herald Bulletin, https://bit.ly/2fQc6be

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Information from: The Herald Bulletin, https://www.theheraldbulletin.com

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