They say it’s never too late to go after your dreams—and one New Jersey man has proved that to be true by achieving a lifelong goal more than 80 years in the making. Earlier in March, a 101-year-old man named Merrill Pittman Cooper received his high school diploma during a surprise graduation ceremony held in his honor. His family worked with local school officials to arrange the impromptu commencement celebration; and, needless to say, the joyful day was a long time coming.
The centenarian graduate grew up attending school during segregation in the 1930s. And despite the difficulties of getting a good education as a Black teen during a time of such extreme discrimination, the wise young man had always valued his studies. After finishing the eighth grade, Cooper even passed a test that admitted him into a high school program at Storer College. The segregated boarding school, founded just after the Civil War in 1867, was initially established to educate formerly enslaved children and even counted Frederick Douglass as one of its trustees.
Cooper attended Storer College from 1934 to 1938, but life circumstances got in the way and prevented him from finishing the course and earning his diploma. As an only child without his father around, it was up to him and his mother to take care of themselves. His mom had even taken on work as a live-in housekeeper in order to pay his school tuition and board; but, eventually, that wasn’t enough. And after realizing his mother couldn’t afford to make the final tuition payment for his senior year, the teen encouraged her to move them to Philadelphia to be closer to her family.
“She worked so hard, and it all became so difficult that I just decided it would be best to give up continuing at the school,” Cooper explains.
Once in Philadelphia, Cooper took on work to help his mother pay the bills, and he was eventually hired as a city trolley car operator in 1945. That job led him to a long and fruitful career in transportation where he eventually became president of the local union in Pennsylvania and later vice president of the International Transport Workers Union in New York City. But despite such a successful career, he always regretted not graduating and getting his high school diploma.
“As time went on, I thought it was probably too late, so I put it behind me and made the best of the situation,” Cooper says, “I got so involved in working and making a living that my dreams went out the window.”
But now, after 84 years, Cooper was finally able to see his lifelong dream come true. His family got the idea to surprise him with the honorary high school diploma after they took him to visit his alma mater for the first time in eight decades. The old Storer College is now part of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, and historians there were interested in talking to Cooper about his experiences at the school. But his family thought he deserved something more, so they worked with Harpers Ferry and the local Jefferson School District to arrange the surprise ceremony at a hotel in his current hometown in New Jersey.
Cooper was floored when he discovered their plan after arriving at the hotel and could hardly hold back his tears. Then, after donning a burgundy cap and gown, the centenarian was presented with his long-awaited diploma by Jefferson County School's superintendent Bondy Shay Gibson-Learn, who had traveled all the way from West Virginia for the celebration. Other officials and representatives from the Storer College Alumni Association and Harpers Ferry also gave speeches virtually.
The whole thing was a dream come true for Cooper, who now displays his framed diploma proudly from its perch on his bedroom dresser. “I can’t think of a happier day,” says the inspiring 101-year-old man. “Even though it took me a while, I’m really happy to finally have it.”
This 101-year-old-man, Merrill Pittman Cooper, finally achieved his lifelong dream of receiving his high school diploma after more than 80 years.
Watch this video to learn more about the centenarian's inspiring story.
h/t: [Washington Post]