Promoting Literacy: An Interview With Wally Amos

James Paul Adamson

As I made my way to interview Wally Amos at his residence I noticed a group of neighbor children doing something I thought was a thing of the past, selling cookies and lemonade at a stand on the corner. I could see how Wally's spirit had spread.

Noted as the creator of Famous Amos Chocolate Chip Cookies and now the Uncle Nonam’e Cookie Company, he has always started at the bottom and worked his way to the top.

As a talent agent for the William Morris Agency he assisted in launching the careers of such musical heavy weights as Simon and Garfunkel, the Supremes and the Temptations.

His list of television appearances include locally the Wally Amos Show and nationally, CNN-Larry King Show, ABC News 20/20, Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous, Today Show, and others too numerous to mention.

He has received several awards, of which just a few are: the President’s award for Entrepreneurial Excellence; Babson Academy of Distinguished Entrepreneurs; and the National Literacy Honors Award.

He has been inducted into the Smithsonian Institution at the National Museum of American History in the Business Americana Collection. But if I had to choose one word to sum up Wally Amos, it would have to be Love, a love of life!

How did you get started in promoting literacy?

Wally Amos: On April 10th, 1979 I became the national spokesperson of Literacy Volunteers of America. During those years there was no one else promoting literacy. I was the first national celebrity spokesperson to really take the message to the people, and I did it in very much the same manner as I promoted my cookies. Oftentimes I would get an interview because of my cookies, but I would talk about literacy during the interview. I used my fame in a constructive way. I wanted to give something back to society, the community at large. Literacy Volunteers of America and literacy became a means of doing that. And so, since I was the only one, and because I was in the public eye so much, I was able to talk about it. And in a very short period of time I became very much associated with the literacy issue.

Ultimately that lead to my involvement with Friends of Libraries USA. That was about 1980. It was suggested that I be a board member of that organization and that became an extension of my work with literacy.

Haven’t you been very active in promoting literacy through the American Library Association?

Wally Amos: There were about four or five years in a row that I attended ALA conferences and would speak.

I would attend the ALA Conference every year and was the focal point at the beginning of conferences. We would stage events and they would use me as a means of promoting the library conference in whatever town it was in. I can remember two events distinctly.

In Philadelphia one year we held a march for literacy. We got the Mayor involved. Bill Green was the Mayor at the time. We marched from City Hall to the library. We gathered librarians and everyone together, and gave them all kazoos. Everyone was marching for literacy and that kicked off ALA's annual conference that year.

On another occasion we where in Chicago for an ALA conference. We had a 24 hour readathon on Michigan Blvd. Harold Washington was mayor of Chicago then, and he came down and we launched it! I read and he read and then we had various celebrities and other people read. It went on for 24 hours.

The interesting thing about that was at night, when all the celebrities and all the so called important people where gone, street people came, and they began to read. They took us right through those late night hours and early morning hours. It was very interesting. It gave me a different perspective on street people. Many of those people out there are incredibly bright. Their lives just didn't quite work out.

So, I was very involved with promoting libraries, because I saw that as my mission too. Promoting libraries and literacy—the two intertwine in my mind’s eye!

How did you get involved with promoting literacy through television?

Wally Amos: I was contacted by Kentucky Educational Television (KET) because they were doing a series called GED on TV, and they wanted me to host five of the reading segments. I'm a GED graduate so I could relate to that, and realized the importance of doing it, so I got involved.

KET also did thirty half hour shows called, Learn to Read, and they wanted me to host those, so I hosted those.

Then they had a series called, Another Page, which they wanted to update. That was fifteen half hour shows for adult learners, and I hosted those. So I've got fifty half hour shows circulating out there that have something to do with helping people further their education. This is all from a guy who dropped out of high school, and who never really saw reading as an important aspect of life, and who never really read a lot until I got involved with literacy, and then I got very involved. In some areas I am more noted for reading then I am for cookies!

Weren't you involved in establishing literacy commissions on the mainland?

Wally Amos: I was very involved with the formation of two literacy councils or commissions on the mainland. The first one that was ever formed was in Baltimore. Don Schaffer, who is now Governor, but was mayor at the time, formed the Baltimore City Literacy Commission, and asked me to be honorary chair.

Then I was able to influence the formation of the Philadelphia Literacy Commission, which is very active. It is the only literacy organization that is funded by government funds. The city funds that office. They coordinate all the literacy activity and are a clearinghouse, a promotional vehicle, an awareness arm for literacy.

How did you get involved with promoting literacy here in Hawaii?

Wally Amos: I was doing all this stuff on the mainland, and then about 1982 I realized there was no visible literacy activity here at home. It just didn't make sense, here I was promoting literacy on the mainland, and I felt I had to do something here at home!

At about that time I discovered Hawaii Literacy, which was using the Laubach Literacy method of teaching adults to read, but had no association with Literacy Volunteers of America.

Then I initiated a workshop for Literacy Volunteers of America. I had a trainer from Literacy Volunteers of America come to Hawaii to conduct the training workshop. We got corporate sponsorship and we got people involved! People came from all over the islands. I think there were about forty- two participants in the workshop that we held at the Library School over at the University of Hawaii. It went on for two or three days. It was wonderful!

Being very involved with literacy throughout the islands, at the suggestion of my secretary, I asked John Waihee when he was Lieutenant Governor to form a Lieutenant Governor's Council for Literacy, and he did.

I can remember when he came and spoke at our annual meeting at Central Union Church. He was very supportive right from the start. And when he became Governor he transferred the office over to the Governors Office and it became the Governors' Council for Literacy.

However, the best thing that ever happened to Hawaii, happened when Lynne Waihee got involved. She became Honorary Chair of the Governor's Council for Literacy. However, she is more than Honorary Chair, She's the working chair. She's a neat lady—she is so committed. She has spent so many hours just reading to kids and promoting literacy in this state. She's much more than just a figurehead. She gets involved and has suggestions. The Read to Me campaign would not of happened without her stick–to–itiveness, without her work, without her creativity, without her energy!

All of this happened in conjunction with the Honolulu Sunrise Rotary Club, of which I'm an honorary member. It was just natural to make that partnership between the Governor's Council for Literacy, the Rotary Foundation, and the Rotary Clubs of Hawaii. So that has been a great campaign, one that is now spreading to other states— Colorado, Alaska—and there are several other states that are implementing their own version of the Read to Me campaign.

The goal of the campaign is simply to have parents or someone read to kids for at least ten minutes every day. It has been proven to a certain degree that the best way to get young people interested in reading is to read aloud to them. It makes that contact. There is a bond that happens between the reader and that kid—it’s so wonderful!

Is there a generation cycle of illiteracy?

Wally Amos: Absolutely, illiteracy can be passed on. But there are adults who break that cycle. You can do it if you want to and I don't think the question need be whether it is hard or easy. The question should always be, is it possible? And everything is possible, you've just got to find a way to make it work.

And what you've really got to do also is reach that place inside of you where you make the decision that you're going to do it. That you're just not going to live the rest of your life being unable to read or write. And the individual has to make that decision. But once they make that decision then magic begins to happen. They find the time, they find the resources, they find out what it really is that they need, to help them achieve their goal and realize their dream. But that person who can't read or write, he or she has to first make that decision, because you can't make it for them.

So if it’s going to be it’s up to me”?

Wally Amos: “If it’s going to be it’s up to me,” that is a wonderful quote. It’s in every area of life, we are responsible for our successes, for our failures.

Is Hawaii handling the adult literacy effort through volunteers?

Wally Amos: The Department of Education is doing work through its Adult Basic Education classes in the evening. But when you look at the adult who never really got the basics, and who really needs support, you discover that comes from one-on-one. One-on-one builds up their confidence. We find adults are afraid of classrooms, because they have had negative classroom experiences and they are reluctant to go back to that setting. So it is one-on-one tutoring that works best with adults who are starting at that very early level of reading.

Hawaii is really one of the leading states in dealing with the problem of illiteracy and coming up with solutions. We are a front runner. And again, I think that it’s due in a great part to Lynn Waihee, and the support we have gotten from Governor John Waihee, and all the volunteers who have come forward and have made a difference!

Bart Kane, the Director of the Hawaii State Public Library System is very involved. He and I both were on the Board of Hawaii Literacy for many years together. He is very supportive and very involved and a lot has been accomplished because of him.

But primarily it is handled through the volunteer effort and one-on-one tutoring.

How are volunteers trained?

Wally Amos: There is a very extensive training program conducted by Hawaii Literacy. It’s an eighteen hour training session usually divided up over a five day period, to fit into peoples work schedules. The training is very thorough. A volunteer is given the skills and tools they need to go out and work with adults.

So often I feel individuals say to themselves, “I don't have a degree” or “I don't have a college degree” or “I'm not a teacher.” I tell you, if you can read then Hawaii Literacy can teach you to teach other adults how to read. All you need is the desire. If you have the desire to help someone to learn how to read, then we will give you the skills and the tools with which to accomplish that task. No one need never be afraid of being a tutor because thousands have done it before you! If you can read you qualify. Then you have to put some desire with the reading skill.

What does Information Literacy represent to you?

Wally Amos: We are in the computer age now, and a lot of people are very literate. They can read and write, but the can't manipulate or work the computer. And if you can't access the information from a computer, if you can't input information into a computer and then get it out, then to a degree you are information illiterate, computer illiterate. There are a lot of those walking around.

It has also stressed the importance of being able to read and write. Computers are everywhere and you can't even begin to function with a computer unless you have comprehension and an understanding of the English language.

But computers are also being used to teach people to read and write, so there is a good side of all that also. Apple and IBM have come up with some very strong programs that are used throughout the literacy movement that are helping adults. There are other programs that are helping kids, so that kids learn and begin to read a lot earlier. That has become an absolute priority! Those programs also familiarize children with computers.

As you are aware, in 1990, under President Bush and the Nation's Governors, an agenda for adult literacy and lifelong learning was adopted. Simply stated it says, “By the year 2000, every adult American will be literate and will possess the knowledge and skills necessary to compete in a global economy and to execute the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.” This became a congressional mandate in 1991.

How do you feel about being a part of this ambitious goal?

Wally Amos: It is indeed a very ambitious goal. They have six years to go now, and I'm not a pessimist by any stretch of the imagination. I'm very optimistic, but given the number of illiterate adults, given the number of kids who are coming out of school today also, that are illiterate, I think the water is going into the bucket faster then we can get it out. But you have to have goals. So maybe it's 2005 or maybe its 2010, but at least there is a strong effort.

It’s such a positive thing though. Here is a government institution, the National Institute for Literacy, that is being set up totally to address the literacy issue. Here is legislation that has been passed dealing with the issue of literacy. So we have come a long way. And every state has some type of literacy mechanism. Many towns have some type of literacy organization or mechanism to address the issue of literacy. So we've come a long way.

I feel good, knowing that I've been a small part of that. Before anyone was out there I was out there. But a lot of people have been involved, Barbara Bush, a lot of people. It's just a team effort. You know nothing ever happens with just one person. It’s always a team, a group of people that are functioning together that achieve the greatest results. I'm just happy I was able to grab the baton and to run with it as I did to make an impression and to help things get going.

Do you have any suggestions for improving literacy skills amongst illiterate adults?

Wally Amos: For the adults who have been out of school for such a long period of time, where their literacy skills are at a low level, the most effective way really is one-on-one tutoring. You need to do that so you can get them to a level where they are comfortable and they have confidence and enough courage to then go to a classroom setting, to Adult Basic Education Groups.

I think we need to be more tolerant. Society needs to be more supportive of people who cannot read.

We were talking about families before and what still happens is in some families there is a family member who wants to learn how to read, and the spouse, either male or female, will often not be so encouraging. Maybe they’re thinking, “now this mate is going to have something that I don't have. Maybe now she's totally dependent upon me, but when she learns to read maybe she is going to be less dependent upon me, or he's going to be less dependent upon me, and so I'm rather reluctant to encourage them to go out and learn how to read and write, because I like that power that I had over them.” So there is a sense of cooperation and support that is constantly needed.

I know of a student out of Delaware, and that is exactly what happened to her. She was married and had children and she finally just wanted to learn how to read, and she decided that she was going to learn. It’s not easy to have no support or encouragement at all but she was bitten by the bug, and she said, “I don't give a damn, you can be here, you can help or not. I'm going to learn how to read!”, and she truly did learn how to read, and it changed her life.

Her first session was in a library. She told the story of pulling up in front of the library one evening to meet the tutor and the library was just a foreign place to her, one of the scariest places in the world—all those books! Books had never been a part of her life. She talked of just sitting there in the car for the longest time, so afraid to get out, and go in the library. And she finally did. She got up the nerve to go in and meet the tutor and start working. But it took a lot for her to reach this and go back again and again.

It takes a lot of courage. You become a target. People will call you names, you could lose your job, fired from a job you worked at all your life. Promotions come your way, but you turn them down because your afraid to go to that next level of responsibility, because there are skills that are needed in that position, that you don't have. You create reasons for never wanting a promotion, never wanting anyone to know that you can't read. Because if they find out, chances are you are going to be fired.

So one way is for us all to be more supportive, more considerate, more loving.

What is the most difficult task in working with illiterate adults?

Wally Amos: The most difficult task is to identify them, because you can't look at someone who can't read and identify them as being a non–reader. It's impossible. You can't tell by seeing someone whether or not they can read. You can't tell by the way someone is dressed. You can't tell by the job they hold.

I met a woman who was a student here, a reader, and she was a teller at a bank, and she had them all fooled. So identifying them is your first task and the most difficult task. Then it’s getting them to come forward. Getting them to say, dear God, I need help, please help me.

How do you do that?

Wally Amos: If anyone has the answer to that we really could get a handle on this. But you know, through the media is one way, through television, through radio, through word of mouth. I've had friends call me about friends of theirs who couldn't read or write. I would get them in touch with someone and assure them that it's very confidential, very private, that no one is going to know. Again, it’s being sensitive to their needs.

In a lot of court rooms they will assign defendants to literacy programs. Many who resort to crime ultimately can't read or write. In some states it is required that you learn how to read or write before you can get paroled.

Social service agencies are being alert and looking to identify their clientele who are unable to read or write. So you've got all these people out there who are identifying adults unable to read for the sole purpose of helping. But I think having identified, one-on-one tutoring is still the best. Many instances one-on-one is incorporating some use of computers, on a very elementary level, to help the student and give them confidence, to help build them up. But I think for that low level of learning that is where you have to start. You've got to get right down to the basics.

The first thing you have to do is build up their confidence, help them believe that they can learn, because they have been told, oftentimes for years, that they are stupid, that they are dumb, that they can't learn, so they believe that. So you got to first build up their confidence, build up their self esteem. No one is going to do that better than one-on-one. You know, a friendship is created, a visual bond between the student and the tutor.

I've seen some of the greatest friendships evolve from that relationship, the student and the tutor. So I think to teach adult basic learners, one-on-one is still the most effective way.

You mentioned earlier about high school students who where graduating and perhaps they were not literate?

Wally Amos: Very definitely. Then you got those students who don't graduate. There is such a high percentage of kids who drop out of school every year and cannot read or write.

One group addressing that problem, is an organization called Cities in Schools. It’s a drop out prevention program, or as in the case here in Hawaii, a drop out intervention program. I am a board member of Cities in Schools nationally.

At August Ahrens Elementary School in Waipahu the idea is to create a support group around these kids, who at this early age have been identified at being at risk.

This area consists of a high percentage of single families, even two parent homes where their parents have two or three jobs, so there is very little time they can spend with their kids.

So what we did was create a program that combined elements that worked on the mainland with ideas the local children could relate to that were relative to the Hawaiian culture—teaching them to love one another, to work with each other, and to respect each other.

First just loving them—creating a group of people around them who'll be surrogate parents. This demonstrates that early support from those that really love them illustrates to them a sense of concern and caring.

Now if we can start instilling that type of good citizenship, that type of caring, that type of love in these kids then they are going to have a greater appreciation of who they are, and they are going to learn how to read and write and lead productive lives.

What we also discovered was that we were able to get parents involved. When we first started Cities in Schools at August Aherens we wanted to have an open house and everyone said, “all right have it but the parents aren't going to come.” They hadn't had an open house in ten years at August Aherens. They said, “We stopped having them because parents didn't come.” We said, “We’re going to have one anyway.” We had over one hundred parents who attended. Basically, parents are interested in what is going on with their kids, but you've got to help them, you've got to support them a bit. Show them how the system works because a lot of them don't know and are intimidated by teachers, so they’re not going to go tell a teacher anything, or talk to a teacher about their kid. They may not have a whole lot of education and they have no experience in supporting their kid or working with their kid. They need classes themselves in being a parent. So we worked with parents to give them strength and confidence.

Well, when we started the program for the second year we had over 300 families that showed up for open house. Now parents have taken a leadership role at August Aherens Elementary School in the lives of their kids, and they have demanded that the program be instituted in other grades.

That kind of thing has to start at that level so when kids get older you have mature responsible kids, that want to learn, that feel good about themselves. Really what we are doing is just building self esteem. If you feel good about who you are, you have values, you’re going to excel, you’re going to go out and do the things that need to be done! If you constantly live in an environment where, “You can't do this!”, or “Don't do that!”, or “Your not worth anything!”, then you’re going to live down to those expectations, and that is what you're going to be.

So I think by having more intervention at an early level you begin to build strong, individuals. You prevent the problem later and you save a lot of money in the process.

Do you think that mandatory achievement testing for high school graduation would raise the level of competence in high school graduates?

Wally Amos: You know, I don't know how well any kind of testing does. Everybody learns at different levels. All you do with that is create a lot of people who can memorize material. It doesn't mean that you comprehend. It doesn't mean that you have a total understanding of everything you have learned. I think we just have to be more sensitive to the fact that we are all individuals, and that maybe we are not all going to go to college. But let’s give you a skill, let’s do something, let’s get you where you want to go, let’s help prepare you to go wherever you want to go.

Create opportunities?

Wally Amos: Absolutely, but create support to help you prepare to take advantage of the opportunities. Because to create the opportunity if your not prepared, I mean if you want to be a bus mechanic, and all of a sudden this job comes along, well that is an opportunity, but if you never learned how to repair the engine on a bus, there is nothing you can do with the opportunity. It’s really being able to identify the goals, aspirations, dreams and values of young people. To find out what they are good at too!

You see we are not all good at the same thing and we won't all do the same thing. But find out what it is they are good at, and help with that, and show them in many ways that they can achieve. I think that is going to go a lot further than saying all right, everyone has got to take this test, and that's going to tell them where you're going to go, who you are and what you are. That is just not so. That just tells how you are on that given day. It doesn't really get into the inside of a person. I think we have to begin to see human beings more as individuals and not as groups. We've got to take the time to work with our young people as individuals.

What further can we do?

Wally Amos: I think by just being more involved in literacy. By understanding that its a people solution. People helping people!

I would also like to acknowledge and thank the Hawaii Library System for all the good work they do and for the many programs they have for adult learners. I'm convinced that libraries do more in our community to foster reading by promoting reading.

Wally Amos is the National Spokesman, Literacy Volunteers of America, Inc.; Board of Advisors—National Center for family Literacy; Board of Directors, Cities in Schools; Board of Directors, Governor’s Council for Literacy; Board of Directors, Aloha United Way, Honolulu; Board of Trustees, Nepoleon Hill Foundation; Owner, Uncle Nonam‘e Cookie Company, Author, Instructor and Corporate Lecturer.


1. Amos, Wally and Camilla Denton. Man With No Name: Turn Lemons into Lemonade:

Lower Lake, California: Aslan Publishing, 1994.

2. Amos, Wally and Gregory Amos. The Power in You: Ten Secret Ingredients for Inner Strength . New York: Donald I. Fine, 1988.

3. Amos, Wally, and Leroy Robinson.The Famous Amos Story: The Face That Launched a Thousand Chips . Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1983.