Dennis Dresser, a man of words

Might as well get straight to the point.

Dennis Dresser wants to help people read.

He’s been doing it for the past 14 years on Kauai as coordinator of the Adult Literacy Program. In that time, he’s helped hundreds of people improve their reading and writing skills.

He’s spent thousands of hours doing it — all of it as a volunteer. His only compensation: the thanks and smiles of those he has assisted, and they range from teenagers to kupuna. Some couldn’t read at all when they started. Some could read a little. Others just wanted to read better.

Either way, Dresser and the team of tutors he leads do what they can.

Oh, Dennis Dresser, by the way, is 86 years old.

He does it, he says, because he loves people. He loves helping those who need help.

“It’s a work of love, I’ll tell you,” he said. “Learning is a chain reaction. You’re learning, their kids are learning, their friends are learning. It’s a chain reaction. It expands. And the more we teach, the more we learn.”

Hawaii Literacy students share one thing in common, Dresser said. They want to read and write better, to make their live better.

And it’s all free, but for the workbooks.

“The drive to learn is in everybody. Just give them an opening,” he said.

What Dresser would love now is more students — and it’s easy to get started.

“Somebody comes in, I do the assessment. I go through the assessment, I grade it and I figure out roughly where they should go in the scheme of things. Then I get the student and the tutor together. The tutor is taught this: You’re going to work with your student, you’re going to figure out what day you’re going to meet, how long you’re going to met, how many times you’re going to meet.

“The student has a piece of paper with the tutor name and phone number on it, and the tutor has the same thing for the student,” he said.

And they’re off.

It doesn’t end, Dresser said, until both student and tutor are satisfied with their level of accomplishment.

He also gives away books, reading manuals to Hemingway novels, to encourage people to read. He has a large collection at his home, specifically for interesting others in the written word.

“A lot of times what I try to do, I’ll say c’mon, you pick a book here you would like and share it with your student. They’re get interested and you’ll get practice in something you really like. Sometimes, they put the book back. Sometimes, they’ll take it. But it’s a tool. It’s a working tool.”

Dresser, who has 10 children, 37 grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren, is writing a book about animals that communicate and help each other. Asked if he has any plans to retire, he smiles, makes a creaking sound and motions with his hand of a coffin door slamming shut.

“If I stop teaching, I die. I have seen people that sat on the front porch and watch the cars go by for 30 years. C’mon. I love people and I’ll keep helping them as long as I can.”

How many students have come to you this since you came on board as coordinator of the Hawaii Adult Literacy program? Are we talking hundreds?


Who is a typical student?

We get people from Japan, China. I can get a person from Laos or one of the Southeast Asian countries. I’ve had one from New Zealand and one from Chile.

How old are your students?

I have never had a really, really old student. Honolulu had a 90-year-old fellow a while back. Most of our students, they run from 70s to 18. We get many when they’re more mature.

How difficult is it to communicate with someone who can only speak limited English?

The library system has translations on the computer, so any tutor can work with it. I have tutors who speak several languages.

How long do most students stay with it?

Some people will quit because they leave the island or visit somewhere. Eventually, they kind of circulate back through.

We’ve had a lot of students take off and come back a few months later, one came back a year later. We tell them OK, it’s always open, you can always come back. We don’t close the door on anybody.

Where do they usually meet?

The libraries around here have been so open arms for us.

You said you have enough tutors right now, but what if tutors can’t take another student?

If I don’t have a tutor, I’ll tutor them.

Why do you do this?

When I was in school, a young kid, sitting on that dunce chair in the corner with that sharp, pointed hat on my head, I can’t tell you how bad that was. I can tell you this, until I was about 11 or 12, I wet the hed every night. I stuttered up a storm. I couldn’t get three words out. By the time I was 13 or 14, I broke myself of that. What happened? One sixth-grade teacher, a red-headed guy, he listened to me and talked to me. During class he said, “Hey, go in the office and answer the phone. There’s nobody in there.” So I’d sit there and do my work and answer the phone. He had respect for me, he trusted me, and that helped me.

That made a difference in your life?

What happened was, when I got out of that and started work, I found out I had a lot of knowledge of things. I went to aircraft school to be a licensed aircraft mechanic. After that I went to several colleges and got several degrees. But all the time I was in that, I was watching people that were struggling.

I’m no brain, OK. When I was born, I was born way early, about 3 pounds and 3 pounces. They kept me in the hospital for almost two years. My mother had to go back and forth on a street car to feed me. When I got into school I had all those problems, but when I got into sixth grade, I had somebody who cared and trusted me. I changed. Then, I got into junior high school, I got into a situation where I worked on the stage crew and ran the big projector for movies. They had me doing all kind of things where they trusted me to do things. It all grew out of that.

Do you have a degree in education?

I don’t have a degree in education, but I can teach like hell. I’ve been able to help people in all kinds of ways and with all kinds of things.

Looking back, what do you think now of how you got where you are today?

I’ve actually depended on a lot of different people in my life to help me be who I am. And I think I’m just trying to give it back. I’m no expert. And if I make a mistake in what I’m doing, I say so. It’s just, I’m driven.

I’m dedicated because I had to go through so much crap. I had to tell myself quit stuttering. I had to tell myself, quit wetting the bed.

You might say it turned me into a man.

It doesn’t make me super, by any means, I make mistakes like anybody else. But I really care about people I deal with. I’ll never give you any information I’m not absolutely sure of. I’ll never lie to you. I’m not built that way. But I will depend on you to do something for us that’s as good as we try to do for our students.

Do you ever get tired of people and all the negative stuff that goes on today?

No. I love people, I love people who need help. I just care one heck of a lot about people. We just want to help people that’s all.

What does it take to be a good tutor in the adult literacy program?


I had 10 kids. I love kids. Watching TV this morning, a little kid reached out and touched the nose of a red Irish setter. You could see the kid giggle. I swear, the Irish setter backed up that far and smiled. Why am I telling you this? You have to like kids to tutor properly. The older you are in tutoring, you need to be older in the way you tutor.

What’s the best way for someone who wants help with adult literacy to reach you?

They can call me at 332-5544 or email me at

If anyone has a question, call me and I’ll get the answer for you because I’ve been doing this for so many years.


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