Margaret Thome Bekema, 97, would have graduated with the class of 1936 from Catholic Central High School in Grand Rapids, Michigan, but dropped out after her mother developed cancer. Last week, the school awarded the great-grandmother with an honorary degree.
"I don't know how to express the thanks," an emotional Bekema said in a video for MLive. "I thank you from the bottom of my heart."
Leaving school at 17 was a painful decision for Bekema. "You have no idea how hard that was," she told the paper. "I loved high school and I had lots of friends."
CCHS chose to bestow the honor on Bekema after her cousin reached out to the school on the woman's behalf.
Bekema joins a long list of Americans who have received degrees late in life. In 2007, Kansas native Nola Ochs became the oldest person to earn a college diploma when she received a general studies degree from Fort Hays State University at the age of 95. According to reports at the time, Ochs regaled fellow students with personal stories of her life during the Dust Bowl, which devastated her state during the 1930s. Earlier this year, 102-year-old German Ingeborg Rapoport completed her Ph.D. 80 years after the Nazis barred her from finishing because her mother was Jewish.
Surprisingly, Bekema is far from the oldest person to receive a high school diploma. Most likely that honor belongs to Lela Burden, who dropped out of school during the 1918 flu pandemic, finally earning a diploma in 2014 at the age of 111.