“back words, my lifelong struggle with dyslexia”

Tom Harrawood, 76, has never been too interested in books, although he has always been keen on learning and, over the course of his life, he’s proven himself a quick study.

Looking back on his life, the Leslie businessman, founder and owner of Harrawood Equipment Company, LLC, can list a string of accomplishments that would make anyone proud:

The construction company he owned with his brothers, Harrawood Bros. Inc., did the site work for both Chesterfield and Jamestown malls;

With business partner Greg Smith, Harrawood invented a “bulk materials shredder and method” (U.S. Patent 5,601,239) for shredding railroad ties, among other materials, so they could be burned for fuel;

He ran a snow removal company and a paving company, he served four years in the U.S. Navy (1960-’64) and also owned a women’s professional softball team, St. Louis Hummers, that traveled the world playing games in the late ’70s.

But a project Harrawood is working on now is as near and dear to his heart as any. He’s developing an app that will help people who have dyslexia be able to comprehend what they are reading.

With the app still in the prototype stage, Harrawood said he has no idea yet when it might be ready to be released. He’s working with a couple of men from Marthasville to develop it, and he has some people with dyslexia who are testing it.

Count Harrawood among them. Pulling out his iPad, he demonstrated how the app works and couldn’t contain his excitement over it.

“People like me trying to read, we can only read so much, but then we get stuck on a word and by the time you break that word down, you lose comprehension,” said Harrawood, who describes himself as a history buff.

But up until now, he was limited to gaining his knowledge from watching TV documentaries.

“But now I can read about it, and it makes a difference,” said Harrawood.

“I’ve read more with this (app) than I did in all my 76 years,” he remarked.

Harrawood said he hopes the app will open up the entire world for children with dyslexia who are growing up today.

‘back words’

Last year, Harrawood published his memoir, “back words,” illustrating “my lifelong struggle with dyslexia.”

The stories included in the 231-page hardback book were written by Harrawood’s cousin, Gary Harrawood. The last line in the epilogue reads, “This is the first book I have ever read.”

Only one chapter directly speaks of Harrawood’s struggle with dyslexia, but throughout the book, he connects how being dyslexic affected his motivation and successes.

In the introduction, Harrawood tells about the health struggles he’s faced, including throat cancer, lymphoma, open heart surgery, a broken back from working draft horses and a broken nose (multiple times) from bucking cows.

“However, the greatest of all my challenges was a learning disability: primarily, the inability to read or write, and the long struggle of being thought of as the dumb kid in the class.”

Second grade was the toughest, said Harrawood, who attended a small Amish and English school in southern Indiana in the late 1940s.

He was held back a year to repeat second grade because he had not yet learned to read, but after that, he was moved up each year through high school, despite never having learned to read.

“Nobody knew about dyslexia. You were just a dummy,” said Harrawood.

But he seems never to have let his struggles with reading wear him down or shake his confidence, despite having been teased and made fun of quite a bit.

“This is the story of how I learned my way amid the ribbing, embarrassment and absolute terror of being discovered that I could not read,” he writes in the introduction.

He tells of using tricks like knocking his book on the floor when the teacher called on him to read, so she would call on someone else rather than waste time on him finding the correct page or goofing off and being funny to distract everyone’s attention.

“Let me reiterate how sickening to the psyche it is when you are asked to read and your heart and soul is poured into the effort,” Harrawood writes in Chapter 3. “ . . . there were always giggles when I got shipwrecked on a word. This dropped over me like a wet blanket of embarrassment.”

Suddenly he noticed that the teacher stopped calling on him to read, and his classmates also came to understand he had some sort of disability.

“That reading dog just wouldn’t hunt,” he writes.

But Harrawood said he wasn’t about to let that slow him down. He became resolute in doing it his way.

“There’s a big world out there waiting for me, and I was not going to spend the rest of my life in the classroom. I created a plan of action,” he wrote.

Harrawood wasn’t alone in his struggles with dyslexia. His three brothers also were dyslexic, although neither of their parents were and none of Harrawood’s children are. However, he did have an uncle who appears to have been dyslexic.

“He was successful, too. He knew how to get things done and do the work, but he had an assistant who helped him read and write things,” said Harrawood.

Other Stories

The book opens with stories of Harrawood’s ancestors, where they were born and how they made their way in America.

He also includes details on the various jobs he’s had, from when he was a kid steering tractors between rows of square hay bales as bigger guys pitched the 60- to 80-pound bales up on the wagons to when he used to pick up milk at the Amish farms to his paving, snow removal and construction businesses.

He outlines his service in the Navy, and how his dyslexia (and low GCT score) kept him from receiving an award for Outstanding Recruit.

Harrawood had scored a 72 on the Navy’s GCT test, which was low enough that the Navy initially wanted to kick him out. So he begged to be able to stay.

“Surely there is something I can do in the Navy. I’ll do anything asked of me,” he writes in the book.

Harrawood was reassigned to Company 257, where he was named the RCPO, or recruit chief petty officer.

“I gave the orders, called the cadence, and got the company of 80 recruits to the drills on the grinder. I got them to the classes on time. I marched them to the mess hall . . . I was the Inspecting Officer before we were given an inspection. I was their leader.”

When Harrawood’s commanding officer, Chief Nicks, nominated him for the Outstanding Recruit award, and his low GCT score was brought up, the Chief stood up for him, saying “He has been one of my finest, if not the best, RCPO I have worked with.”

In the end, Harrawood was denied the award, but Chief Nicks’ support was more meaningful to him than any medal, he said.

Hopes Book Is an Inspiration

Today, Harrawood lives on a 220-acre farm in Leslie with his wife, Laura, who raises llamas. He is retired from his company, Harrawood Equipment, but he still goes in every day to visit.

People who are interested in reading his memoir can purchase a copy at the office, 4785 Highway 50, in Leslie. He hopes his story will be an inspiration to others.

“I wrote it to tell people, ‘You can do it,’ ” Harrawood remarked.

He wants people with dyslexia or any kind of reading struggles to know that it does not have to be a limitation.

For more information on the book, people can contact Harrawood at 314-550-6774 or by email at harrawood@aol.com.