Famous Amos: A Literacy Champion

February is Black History Month and this year we’re highlighting a wonderful and enduring literacy champion – Wally “Famous” Amos.

“It’s about giving people self esteem. It’s about giving people their dignity. It’s about helping people to see how valuable and how important they are.” – Wally Amos

Beginnings

Wallace “Wally” Amos, Jr. was born in Florida in July 1936. At the age of 12 he moved to New York to live with his Aunt Della in Harlem. Wally dropped out of high school but earned his GED while serving in the Air Force. After he moved back to New York, Wally worked for the William Morris Talent Agency, rising through the ranks from the mailroom to the first black talent agent in the industry. While working as an agent, Wally baked cookies using his aunt’s recipe as a hobby and a way to relieve stress. He often brought along a batch of cookies to meetings and they were soon in high demand.

In 1975, disillusioned with talent industry, Wally founded his cookie company, Famous Amos. With celebrity backing, the business quickly became a success. After many years of prosperity, due to some poor business decisions, Wally sold the company in 1985. He had a number of other business endeavours over the years, however none seemed able to reach the same level of achievement of the original cookie company.

A Literacy Advocate

In 1979, Wally became the national spokesperson of Literacy Volunteers of America.

“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.”

Wally also got involved with other literacy organizations in the 1980s and 90s, such as Friends of Libraries USA and the American Library Association. He would speak at conferences, work on boards, participated in 24 hour readathons and more. Kentucky Educational Television (KET) approached Wally to host reading segments on its show GED on TV. He went on to host other shows such as Learn to Read and Another Page. He helped to found several literacy councils on the mainland US and Hawaii. Wally also helped found the Philadelphia Literacy Commission. Wally’s focus was largely on helping adult literacy learners achieve success. However, he helped run family literacy programs as well. He saw the impact helping parents in supporting their children has and how it benefits the whole family. In 2010, he launched the Read It LOUD! foundation which encourages parents to read aloud to their children. But in the end, it all comes back to 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.”

In 1991, Wally was presented with the National Literacy Honors Award by President George H.W. Bush. He went on to author numerous books on his life, his perspective on success, self-esteem and the power of positive thinking. As of 2016, at 80 years old, Wally was still volunteering in the literacy field. He is tireless in both his literacy work and positive attitude, and has no doubt impacted thousands of people. We raise our cookies and glasses of milk to you, Wally!

Watch excerpts from a selection of Wally’s inspirational speeches below.

“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.”

To learn more about Wally Amos and his dedication to literacy, check out the resources below.

References

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