Philip Kalantgis probably would enjoy this story, if he could read it.
After arriving in this country in 1967 with $27 in his pocket, Kalantgis, the son of poor Greek farmers, got a job washing dishes. He became a licensed hairdresser, and met people who became his business partners.
Through the years, Kalantgis and his partners bought and sold beauty shops, restaurants and a discotheque.
He now owns three flower shops and has a license to fly one of the fruits of his success -- a six-seat airplane.
But Kalantgis was troubled by a shortcoming. He was living the American dream despite the fact that he could not read or write.
A few months ago, Kalantgis, 46, began seeing a volunteer tutor provided through the Literacy Council of Northern Virginia. During a recent interview, Kalantgis opened one of his workbooks and proudly pointed to one of the first complete sentences he ever wrote: "The duck is in the mud."
Just how Kalantgis managed to become a successful businessman in this country without reading and writing skills is a story of reliance on friends and family members, trickery and a cunning sense of survival.
Officials at the Literacy Council say that in the Washington area, where an estimated 20 percent of adults have reading and writing skills below fifth-grade level, Kalantgis's case represents a largely unknown face of illiteracy: its existence among people who, somehow, find a way to prosper.
The nonprofit Literacy Council also has arranged for tutors to teach basic reading and writing skills to a retired Fairfax County government worker who raised 10 children and put most of them through college, a Falls Church man who owns a construction company, and a Fairfax carpenter who runs his own business.
"I think people would be surprised if they knew how many cases there are like this," said Cynthia Ballentine, outreach coordinator for the Literacy Council.
"There are all sorts of tricks people use to get by without knowing how to read or write."
Kalantgis, an Annandale resident who dropped out of elementary school to work his family's fields in central Greece, was a master at getting by.
He said he got his beautician's license by quizzing more than 20 hairdressers about what questions had been on their tests. By memorizing a few key words in the most-asked questions, Kalantgis said, he was able to squeeze out a passing grade on the multiple-choice exam.
To get his driver's license, Kalantgis took a more direct approach. He brought a friend with him to the exam, obstensibly to translate the questions into Greek. Besides the questions, Kalantgis said, the friend gave him the answers.
"You learn all sorts of tricks," Kalantgis said. "If you want something bad enough, you do what you have to."
Once he got into business, he had his U.S.-born wife, Jodi, or Greek friends interpret contracts and other papers for him.
His writing ability began and ended with his signature.
"I was very lucky. I suppose someone could have taken advantage of me," said Kalantgis, who owns Bradlee Florist and Fox Chase Florist in Alexandria and Columbia Pike Florist in Arlington. "But everyone I did business with, I had a feeling in my gut that they were okay. It was . . . instinct."
To get his pilot's license, Kalantgis learned the functions of each cockpit instrument and its practical use, then memorized phrases associated with each instrument. After two years of training with an instructor, he passed a multiple-choice test that allows him to fly only during good weather. For further flying privileges, he must pass a more demanding test and get more flying experience.
Kalantgis said that although his desire for more flying privileges was a factor in his decision to finally try to learn to read and write, he turned to the Literacy Council for more personal reasons.
"It used not to bother me because I would just think, 'That guy, he's no better than me,' " Kalantgis said.
"But it came to a point that it started bothering me. It was the little things . . . like going to a restaurant and always asking for the special . . . because I couldn't read the menu."
Ann Scales, executive director of the Literacy Council, said most successful people who have reading and writing problems are reluctant to seek help or talk about their problems.
Kalantgis said he agreed to be interviewed because he wants to encourage others who can't read or write to seek help.
"I had so many people help me out along the way. I wouldn't have made it without them, especially my wife," Kalantgis said. "If I can help others by speaking out, then I will."