After being called stupid in 2nd grade, Jay Thiessens spent the next 50 years of his life as an illiterate man. He wasn’t able to read newspapers, documents, or even childrens’ books. And yet, he graduated high school, started a family with 3 kids, and managed a successful welding business that withstood the flood of 1997 on New Year’s Day in Washoe County.
For most of his life, media was something he received primarily by ear. Albeit through radio or television, the news of different events important to his company were something he couldn’t access like everyone else. There was always a mediator, somebody who could translate the cryptic nonsense that he would inevitably come across as a boss of over 50 employees. “People would ask me to read something,” he said,” so I would take what they had for me to read and I would give it to either my daughter or my wife. They would read it to me.” He got into the habit of relying on the kindness of others to help hide his greatest insecurity.
This apparent flaw wasn’t a complete loss though. From living most of his life by ear, he had developed an impressively high retention level equivalent to that of a 16th grader. When asked why, he said jokingly, “my wife read to me and I had to get it the first time because she wasn’t going to reread!” This ability gave him an edge over his competitors. He could be doing multiple things at once while listening to an entire new’s story on television and recall what he heard almost word for word.
Eventually, he came to terms with his problem and hired a tutor who spent an hour with him 5 days a week for 5 years teaching him how to read. Now, at age 73, Thiessens can read at a 12th grade level. His story has earned him a National Blue Chip Enterprise Initiative Award sponsored by Mass Mutual. The award, which is given to businessmen that have overcome hardship, was originally going to be in honor of his company’s perseverance during the flood, but as Thiessens and his employees were discussing the upcoming award his daughter made a confession on his behalf. “That’s not the real obstacle dad has overcome,” she said to the company, “dad has just learned how to read.” His company was in awe. They admired his courage and decided to revise the conditions for the award.
If you search for Jay Thiessens on Google, you’ll find articles from a variety of reputable sources like People Magazine covering his inspirational story. Naturally, this media coverage granted him some notoriety. Thiessens’s rags to riches story was quite popular around 1999 and some fellow businessmen who had known of him before the story, eventually caught wind of it. Rather than shun him, they respected the man. B&J Welding which is located in Sparks, Nevada is currently on its 41st year in operation.
However, as of late, Thiessens has been focusing less on his company and more on reading and not in the way you’d expect. He doesn’t read for leisure that’s for sure. When asked what he reads for fun he said “I made it 56 years without reading. Why should I wanna read now?” Lately, he’s been looking into more community driven pursuits. I met Thiessens during a Read and Succeed class which teaches volunteers how to read books to young elementary school children who are falling behind in Washoe County to improve their literacy. He had the opportunity to speak to prospective volunteers at one point. Sincerely, he said, “I praise all of you.” There’s no doubt the support bestowed upon him from family and friends played a huge part in his success. Sometimes, school isn’t everything a child needs to realize his or her potential. Sometimes, it takes a strong infrastructure in the home and community for a positive turnout.