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Video: The 90-year-old graduate

TODAY contributor
updated 6/12/2008 11:20:11 AM ET 2008-06-12T15:20:11

For a high school dropout, John Locher did all right. He supported his family during the Depression; fought in World War II; got married and raised eight children, and became a senior design engineer for General Motors.

And now, at the age of 90, he’s graduated from high school.

“I believe that’s why God kept me alive all these years,” the proud graduate told TODAY’s Al Roker and Natalie Morales Thursday in New York. Three days earlier, the graduating class at Southwestern High School in Detroit had given him a rousing ovation when he joined them at the school’s commencement ceremonies.

“Wonderful,” he said of the experience. “Just plain wonderful.”

Morales noted that Locher’s life and career speak for themselves. He worked for GM for 38 years, working himself up to senior design engineer. He raised a big family and has 19 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. Retired now and living with his wife, Mary, in Florida, he’s done very well.

But Locher said the lack of a high school diploma always bothered him.

No dummy
“For one thing, one of the kids said I was just a dummy, a dumb jerk and so forth,” he told Roker and Morales. He didn’t say when that insult was delivered or identify who said it. He just said, “I didn’t believe it ... but I felt bad about it.”

His children knew that it bothered him, so last year, two of his daughters, Michelle Goodyear and Jeanette Locher, contacted his old high school to see if he could finally be declared a graduate.

“We wanted to do something special for my father for his 90th birthday, and we knew that this was something that was important to him,” Jeanette said. “So we contacted the school and we started working on it. We were hoping to get it for his birthday in September, but it got there for Christmas.”

John Locher receives his diploma at long last.
Locher didn’t have to take any more courses. School administrators decided he had earned enough “life credits” to make up for the two years of school he was unable to complete. They mailed the diploma to Locher, then invited him to join Monday’s commencement.

“When I opened it up, I almost fainted," he told the Associated Press at the commencement. “I thought someone was playing a real cruel joke on me.”

It was no joke, but a well-earned validation of his life.

Locher brushed off talk of his many accomplishments. “I never achieved anything,” he told Roker and Morales. “I’m dumbfounded even to this day at all this that’s going on.”

Family came first
Locher told AP that he dropped out of school in the 10th grade in the early 1930s, when his father contracted tuberculosis. As the eldest child, he felt an obligation to support his family.

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“My family was starving, literally,” he told AP. “I had to make some provision to make money. I was the oldest. I had a paper route. I did all kinds of work. I worked one place for 33 cents an hour, and I worked my fanny off.”

Among the jobs Locher had were weaving wicker baskets, repairing cars and making deliveries for a bakery.

In 1936, he got a job with GM, and, with time off to fight for his country in the South Pacific, he put in 38 years before retiring. He married Mary Jean La Haye, who is now 80, in 1945.

Locher said that learning is a lifelong adventure. His advice to today’s graduates is to always work to make themselves better and to use their abilities to help others.

“God has been really good to me,” he said at his commencement. “I feel 100 percent lighter. I appreciate this moment very much ... It really was overwhelming.”

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