Claude Thadys had a lot of sayings, but two were like bookends. He would often point out that he made it through life just fine with a third-grade education, said his son Marcus Thadys.
And then there was the other: "He always said, if he'd had an education, he'd be dangerous," his son recalled.
Finally, in his 70s, Thadys found his way to the Franklin Learning Center in Minneapolis, where he learned to read and share his life story.
"He never got discouraged," said Kelly Maynard, who was his tutor and friend for many years. "I can't imagine how exhausting it must have been to struggle with the fact he could not read. He was so inspirational."
Thadys, who was the born the son of sharecroppers on an Arkansas cotton plantation, died Sept. 8 in his home in Coon Rapids. He was 90.
As a child, Thadys picked cotton to earn his keep on the plantation and helped care for his mother, who was blind. When she died, he hit the road, working jobs up and down the Mississippi River. For many of his early years he worked the railroads.
"He was the true definition of a rolling stone," said Marcus Thadys.
When Thadys was in his 50s, a romance brought him from Des Moines to Minneapolis, where he worked as a building engineer at what was then the Pillsbury Center in downtown Minneapolis and he had three children — "that we know of for sure," Marcus Thadys said.
But he found his true community 25 years ago, when he came to the Minneapolis Urban League through its Seniors and Community Service Program. The program was designed to train seniors and help them find jobs, but he never left.
"He became indispensable," said Linda Alexander, the Urban League's executive assistant. "We'd have to make him take his vacation, and when he was gone for a week everything went haywire."
He administered the copy machines and the coffee machine and ran the desk on Sundays, when churches held their services in the Urban League building, Alexander said. "He was very popular," she said.
It was his routine to walk everyone to their cars at night, no matter what time, even when he had to use a walker to do it.
Another of his favorite sayings was: "Not good enough to brag, not bad enough to complain."
When Maynard met him while volunteering at the Franklin Learning Center, she was in her late 20s. They hit it off instantly, she said, an unusual friendship but typical of his warmth and charm.
Everywhere they went in his north Minneapolis neighborhood, "He'd bump into someone he knew," she said. "He was like an old politician."
Week after week, year after year, Thadys came to the center to study, Maynard said. At first, she said, the center's staff members didn't quite know what to do with him because he didn't fit the norm for their students. But Maynard worked with him on reading, and then wrote down his stories. Eventually, he began laboriously writing them on his own.
Over time, he became one of the center's most prized students. His was one of the stories the center recorded and sent to the Library of Congress for an oral history project.
Even in his final days, he still got music and books on tape from the public library's homebound service.
"He was such a survivor and the quintessential lifelong learner," Maynard said.
A memorial gathering was held Saturday at the Urban League in Minneapolis.