It may be hard to believe, but 14 percent of American adults, about 32 million people, can't read.

Lacking this basic skill makes success unlikely for many, but that is most definitely not the case for Sparks businessman Jay Thiessens.

Thiessens is very good with machines. So good, that he and his wife, Bonnie, built a successful business around them, even though for decades, Jay wasn't so good at something else.

He was 56 when he decided to learn how to read.

Sick with rheumatic fever as a kid, Jay spiked high fevers and took aspirin daily to keep his temperature down, which doctors tell him can kill brain cells, especially at a crucial time for development. He missed a full year of school between first and second grade.

"I remember that I was up in front of the class trying to read, and my second grade teacher called me stupid," Jay said. "So then the kids all picked up on that."

He kept it a secret for nearly 50 years, flying under the radar and guessing on multiple choice - even earning his high school diploma.

"I just went through school being quiet, shy, sit at the back of the class, not creating a problem for the teachers or anything," Jay said, "and a lot of them passed me on because I didn't give them a problem."

At 19 he married Bonnie. It's a partnership that made all the difference.

"She would read to me two to three hours every night," Jay said. "Anything that I needed read, I'd pack it home and she would read it to me at night."

"It was boring," Bonnie said. "Especially the manuals on the different machines. But when you're young and in love, you do what you need to do to help your spouse."
The two built B&J Machine and Tool, and a family, together, all the while keeping Jay's secret.

"It was a big secret," Jay said. "I mean, I was terrified. I would have almost gone to my death before I would have admitted to somebody that I couldn't read."

That makes it all the more amazing that one day he changed his mind. At age 56, urged by a friend, he confessed to his local CEO group. Unlike the bullying and judgment he got as a kid, they wanted to help. They sent him to doctors' appointments, encouraged tutoring, and five years of work later, he was a reader.

"I remember one night when Ella [his tutor] was tutoring me, and it came to me, and I had a physical feeling that started at the tips of my toes and went to the top of my head," Jay said. "I went from being that stupid kid to being somebody that could consider themselves smart."

Now, Jay uses his newfound confidence to spread a message.

"What I want the whole world to know is what I had to discover the hard way," Jay said. "You're not stupid. Go get the help. The help is out there."

Jay went on to tutor five other adult learners who didn't have reading skills. He also works with the Northern Nevada Literacy Council to reach other people who could use some help reading. For information on the Northern Nevada Literacy Council and the services it provides, click here.