For 17 years, Walters, who attended Weehawken High School more than 65 years ago (while living on 48th Street in Weehawken), has bought every child in Daniel Webster No. 2 Elementary School a new book twice a year – for a total 850 books annually – consulting first with the school’s reading specialists as to the best choices.
He’s spent about $15,000 of his own money on the books he’s purchased from Scholastic Books, and an additional $5,000 in books for 36 teachers’ classroom libraries. And, when a struggling children’s book author came to the school to read from his book, Walters gave him a donation as encouragement. He even gave chocolates to the teachers every year.
But even more valuable than the books, said the principal of Daniel Webster school, Anna Rudowsky, were the four full school days Walters spent reading to the pre-K through second-graders, one class at a time.
As a former actor who appeared on the comedy shows “Saturday Night Live”, “The Conan O’Brien Show”, “The David Letterman Show”, and the television dramas, “Law & Order”, and “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” he read and acted out the stories with a verve and dramatic flair not lost on the children or the adults at Daniel Webster.
“Because of his background in the theatre and acting, when he reads a story, he’s able to engage the students and bring that story to life,” Rudowsky said. Some of Walters’s acting skills are in fearsome display in the music video, “Get Born Again,” for the grunge group Alice in Chains as a demonic mad scientist cloning a band, in striking contrast to his gentle and benign demeanor
“I had so much to give back, because life has been very good to me.” – Charles Walters
Reading to the Daniel Webster students fills a void of unfulfilled ambition for Walters. He wanted to be a teacher, but poverty at the time kept him from pursuing that dream. Aside from the school being in his former hometown, Walters chose Daniel Webster School as a place to continue his volunteering because, he said, other schools he had volunteered at did not keep rowdy students under enough control while he read.
Walters began his relationship with Daniel Webster School as one of a group of volunteer readers organized by the Screen Actors Guild. After the guild disbanded the group, Walters tried to organize the actors himself, even offering to pay for their transportation. They wouldn’t bite. So he continued his volunteer work solo.
Walters doesn’t just read to the students; he engages them.
“I say to them, ‘You read this page and I'll read that page.’ Then I ask them questions about what they read.”
His favorite children’s books to read with the students are Mo Willems’ “Don’t Let The Pigeon Drive the Bus!,” all of the Dr. Seuss books, and Mary Pope Osborne’s Magic Tree House series. Every year, he gives every first and second-grader a Magic Tree House book. Walters regarded those gifts to the students are their reward for learning to read.
When Daniel Webster threw a surprise good-bye party for Walters in June, the entire student body turned out. “Mr. Charles is moving to a new house,” Rudowsky explained slowly to the
425 pre-K to second graders sitting cross-legged and attentively on the gym floor, “and his new house is not in Weehawken.”
Some of the students cried.
Walters’s tears had already come a little earlier, when the student body, conducted by music director Piero Romano accompanying them on the keyboard, sang a rousing version of “Dr. Seuss, We Love You,” renamed, “Mr. Charles, We Love You,” with plaintive emphasis on the line, “You make reading fun,” Students then presented him with books they had written, filled with descriptions they had come up with to describe Walters.
“That brought the tears out of me,” he said.
Walters then read one of his favorite books, “Puff, the Magic Dragon,” to the Theodore Roosevelt students: “I love you all, and I love ‘Puff, the Magic Dragon,’ too,” he said. He is moving to live near his son in Middletown in Monmouth County, packing up his own personal library of almost 900 books. He will be volunteering as a reader at a school system there, and working on a children’s book of his own.
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Isabel McGinley, who was a reading specialist when Walters was at the school and now serves as the Weehawken School District’s supervisor of elementary education, said his reading to the students built on the enthusiasm for reading which Daniel Webster teachers instill in their students.
“When students are listening to authentic literature being read aloud in an animated and engaging voice, they are not only entertained, but they are being exposed to a rich vocabulary,” McGinley said. “They hear the nuances and inflections in a character’s voice and acquire a better understanding of the English language.”
In return, Walters said, he gets to witness the students’ love of learning.
“These kids give me so much: Most of all, their enthusiasm,” Walters said. “They’re trying so hard, and they want to get ahead. They really, really want to learn.” He added ruefully: “I wanted to learn, I wanted to be a teacher. My plan was to go to Montclair to become a teacher.”
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After high school, Walters joined the United States Air Force and spent a year fighting in the Korean War. The training in radio teletype communications he received there helped him land a job at the Goldman Sachs investment banking company as a teletype operator. He rose in the ranks to become a trader, and ultimately manager of a trading floor.
After one of Wall Street’s financial crises led to the loss of his job, Walters resolved to make the most of the forced retirement by pursuing a part-time acting profession, full-time. After he procured minor roles in daytime television shows such as “All My Children,” he earned his Screen Actors Guild card. He was thrilled.
But Walters maintains that more than his career in finance; and even more than his career as an actor; reading to the Weehawken elementary school students has given him the most fulfillment.
“I had so much to give back, because life has been very good to me,” he said. “I wanted to be able to think that I’ve been very good to life, too. That is a rare opportunity. You don’t always get a chance to give back.”
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