Path to Literacy

I Believe I Can Fly

Jesse Cradduck

The Oklahoma Department of Libraries Literacy Resource Office, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, shared Jesse’s story with us. 

“Jesse Cradduck is the smartest person I know. He was functionally illiterate until age 30, but reached for his dreams and never gave up.”
—Leslie Gelders, Literacy Director, Oklahoma Department of Libraries

When Jesse was 3 years old he was involved in a car accident that scarred his face and left him with partial hearing loss. Another car accident when he was 7 killed his mother. He was left with deep physical and emotional scars. After his mother’s death, he was raised by his grandmother and lived in extreme poverty. 

Jesse never learned to read during school. He made it through the sixth grade before dropping out to find work. 

By this point, Jesse was 13, and he had been moved to his aunt’s house where he had a room on the back porch with no insulation from the cold winters, and no relief from the hot Oklahoma summers. 

He worked an average of 60 hours a week mowing lawns, performing odd jobs, and cleaning his uncle’s bar until late in the night.

During this time, Jesse met Shirley. He married her at age 15 and they had their first child a year later. Life was difficult for this new family, but Jesse was determined to provide stability. He did not want to live off relatives or take handouts from the government. He worked hard to find stable and sustainable employment, but Jesse continuously ran into obstacles due to his inability to read. 

After years of hardship, Jesse’s strong faith led him to ministry. This was extremely challenging and stressful because he still could not read. With Shirley’s help, Jesse memorized scripture and began preaching in a small church in Oklahoma City.

The pressure of “faking it” in life became too much for Jesse to bear and he ended up in the hospital with what he thought was a heart attack. The doctor recognized that his condition was caused by overwhelming stress, and that his inability to read was causing much of his anxiety. Jesse was referred to a local literacy program where he was matched with a literacy tutor who taught him how to read.

As his literacy skills started to improve, Jesse’s desire to learn also increased. He went on to earn his high school diploma and enrolled at Southwestern Christian University, where he earned his bachelor of arts degree and a master’s in church growth studies. He later received a doctorate from the American Bible School and Seminary.

He even wrote a book—I Believe I Can Fly. In it, Jesse shares his story and encourages others to learn to read or teach someone to read. 

At age 68, Jesse is still married to Shirley, still serves as a pastor, gives speeches around the world, and inspires others to reach for their dreams.