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The Mystery Man Who Helped to Improve American Literacy

This little-known WWII veteran and highly accomplished educator contributed to the literacy of generations of Americans. So why don’t we hear more about him?

Silhouette of a boy reading a book outside by a tree during sunset.
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

A remarkable man was born on February 5, 1924, in Independence, Kentucky. In 1943 he became a fighter pilot with the U.S. Army Air Corps and flew sorties into Iwo Jima, Japan. After the war, he remained stationed in the Pacific as an Information-Education Officer. When he left the Air Force in 1946, he made a choice that would impact the rest of his life.

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William K. Durr earned a B.A. Degree in Elementary Education and promptly began teaching third grade. (Along the way, he met and married his wife. Together, they had and raised three sons.) He completed an M.A. Degree in Elementary School Education by 1951. And in 1955, he received a doctorate in education and started teaching at Michigan State University.

Durr was a proponent of the basal reading approach. This approach encourages children to learn literacy through books, workbooks, and other educational materials that build on skills they’ve already mastered. Basal reading is slightly different from the phonetic reading approach made popular in the 80s and 90s (if any of you are old enough to remember “Hooked on Phonics) and the whole language approach being used today. Instead, basal reading had more of a “See Spot run. Run, Spot, run.” quality to it.

You may not be surprised to discover Durr became the senior author of the Houghton Mifflin (now Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) Reading Program. In fact, this is how I first came across his work. But more on that later.

Dr. Durr went on to become president of the Michigan Reading Association, the International Reading Association, and the Reading Hall of Fame. And that last one is no insignificant feat.

In order to become a member of the Reading Hall of Fame, you need to have been actively involved in literacy work for at least twenty-five years! In addition to that, only members of the Reading Hall of Fame can nominate people to apply for membership, and they stress the importance of being well-respected in the professional community. And William Durr certainly met all of those requirements. In addition to the large body of educational materials he produced through Houghton Mifflin for classrooms across the country, he also wrote two professional books and spoke to educators in every state— and on four other continents. He passed away in 2009.

A Life-Changing Moment

Remember earlier when I mentioned the first time I came across Dr. Durr’s work? Imagine a shy and short six-year-old girl living in West Germany during the last days of the Cold War. She loves school and enjoys learning even though it’s difficult to concentrate sometimes. This is partially because she has borderline-aphantasia. Oh, did I mention this girl was me?

Learning to read was incredibly difficult. And I wasn’t a slow learner in most things. (In hindsight, a phonetic approach would have been more effective for my type of cognition.) This was the first time I had ever attempted something with seemingly no success. (Okay, yeah. I was tiny. And impatient.) My mother sat with me day after day with my reading book in her lap, trying to help me through it.

It’s funny. I remember the unsuccessful attempts and the ensuing frustration. And I remember being able to read with ease. Whichever switch got flipped in my brain got totally erased, as did most of my memory of every single story in that book. But one part of that book always stood out to me. The cover, with its enticing title. It soothed and comforted me. And now, by the power of the internet, I have found my dear friend once again.

Moonbeams

by the late Dr. William Kirstely Durr

Gone, but never forgotten.

PS: Did you learn something new? Great! Here’s my tip jar. 😉

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