WWII vet starts new chapter after conquering illiteracy

Last month, Ed Bray read a book about George Washington. CBS News

(CBS News) COOKSON, Okla. -- Inside a single-wide in Cookson, Okla., a tortured soul lives alone.

"It's a hard life, let me tell you," said 90-year-old Ed Bray. "You ain't never lived hard until you go through what I've been through."

Ed served in World War II. He was at Normandy on D-Day, has two Purple Hearts and more than a dozen other medals. But when we first met him in March, he couldn't even read what they were for. Not because it was too painful, but because he simply couldn't read.

Ed Bray was at Normandy on D-Day and has two Purple Hearts, but for 89 years, he could not read.
Ed Bray was at Normandy on D-Day and has two Purple Hearts, but for 89 years, he could not read.
CBS News

"The toughest thing that ever happened to me in my life was not being able to read," he said.

Illiteracy can be that damning.

"I've covered this up for 80 years," he said. "Nobody in this town knows I can't read."

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Until he retired, Ed worked a civilian job at an Air Force base refueling planes. A coworker helped him with forms and what not. At home, his wife covered him for 62 years, until she died in 2009. Since then, Ed has managed OK, but the soldier in him still refuses to surrender.

"I want to read one book," he said. "I don't care if it's about Mickey Mouse. I want to read one book before I die."

Over the years, Ed says many people have tried to school him, but invariably, either the teacher or the student would get frustrated and give up. Then a few months ago, a friend suggested he see a professor of reading education at Oklahoma's Northeastern State University.

Northeastern State University professor Tobi Thompson
Northeastern State University professor Tobi Thompson
CBS News

"He told me I was wasting my time," said Tobi Thompson. "And I said, 'Well, we'll just sit and chat a couple times a week, is that OK?'"

Tobi said eventually their weekly talks gave way to flash cards.

"And everything started clicking," Ed said.

He got pretty good at the sight words, but the real breakthrough came in February, when at the age of 89, Ed Bray read a book about George Washington.

"It gave me goosebumps, and it still does," Tobi said. "It still does."

He read three more that week, and though they were all just third-grade-level biographies, each one had the same dramatic ending.

"Did you ever think you could read that?" Tobi would ask a teary Ed.

Ed Bray has taken up karaoke since he learned to read.
Ed Bray has taken up karaoke since he learned to read.
CBS News

"This has changed my whole life," Ed said. "I'm not the same guy I was when I started with Tobi. I'm a different man now."

Today, Ed is at a sixth-grade level and can now enjoy many of the benefits literacy provides, most notably karaoke.

We asked him to sing for us the night we caught up with him, but he does it all the time on his own. Reading really has given him tremendous confidence, which he hopes will inspire others.

"Get in there and learn, baby -- now!" Ed said. "'Cause you ain't going to learn in that pine box."

Just learned to read and already a poet.

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  • Steve Hartman

    Steve Hartman has been a CBS News correspondent since 1998, having served as a part-time correspondent for the previous two years.

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