ST. PETERSBURG — When Richard Gildrie came home from first grade in the 1940s, he proudly recited every word of "Read with Dick and Jane" to his mother.
She was quite impressed, he recalled this week, "until she went to the back where the vocabulary words were separated from the sentences, at which point I couldn't read a thing. She was appalled."
Virginia Gildrie's realization that her son had memorized — but not learned — his first reading lessons cemented her lifelong belief that stupidity does not cause illiteracy. Just look at how people cope so creatively with being unable to read.
Mrs. Gildrie, who died this month at 90, was a driving force for four decades in the Literacy Council of St. Petersburg, where dozens of volunteers work one on one, teaching children and adults how to read.
Mrs. Gildrie oversaw classes, trained volunteers and tutored students directly.
"Literacy is my life," she told a reporter in 2001. "I can't stand it that somebody else can't read."
One pupil, 18-year-old Julie Harmon, suffered from dyslexia and was reading at about a third grade level. She studied hard in public school special-education classes, but nothing helped.
Working with Mrs. Gildrie, she raised her reading level six grades in just three months and graduated from Largo High School with a regular diploma, said her mother, Maria Harmon. Now 27, she has two children and "devours books, probably reading two or three novels a week."
Mrs. Gildrie, who was 81 or 82 at the time, was "contagious with her energy," Harmon said. "She was kind of an angel to us."
A Rhode Island native, Mrs. Gildrie moved to St. Petersburg in 1959 from Norfolk, Va. Her husband had just finished a 20-year Navy career, and Norfolk public schools had shut down rather than obey court orders to integrate.
She "was deeply offended by segregation," her son Charles Gildrie said. "She was a bit of a social reformer."
In St. Petersburg, her husband, Courtland Gildrie, taught civics and history at Azalea Middle School while Mrs. Gildrie did bookkeeping.
She also began to write feisty letters to the St. Petersburg Times. She railed against poverty and school vouchers. She jumped into the "happy holidays" debate by pointing out that the Puritans, the nation's forebears, viewed Christmas as a pagan ritual.
She took particularly sarcastic umbrage at the notion of posting the Ten Commandments in public schools.
"Let's take this idea a little further and have loudspeakers throughout the city broadcasting the reading of the Ten Commandments on the hour, every hour," she wrote. "That would assure the end of all immoral behavior in our city!"
After her husband died in 2005, Mrs. Gildrie moved into an assisted living home near Bay Pines. Even with congestive heart failure and diabetes, she tutored students until late last year.
"In her mind, she was always going to improve the world," Maria Harmon says. "Nothing was going to hold her down."
Mrs. Gildrie explained herself in a 1993 letter, taking the Times to task for a Sally Forth cartoon where the young daughter suggested that reading is dull.
"One can lose oneself in books, can climb Mount Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary, go to the South Pole with Roald Amundsen, brave the Amazon jungle with Bomba the Jungle Boy or Col. Fawcett, solve a mystery with Agatha Christie or P.D. James, sail the far seas with Horatio Hornblower, read the great saga Roots, laugh with P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves — the possibilities are endless."