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Video: 95-year-old receives high school diploma

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TODAY contributor
updated 5/25/2010 10:01:24 AM ET 2010-05-25T14:01:24

There was a bit more pomp and considerably more circumstance than usual at the Falkville High School graduation ceremonies Monday night. Marching alongside the fresh-faced Alabama seniors ready to make their way in the world was 95-year-old Earlene Harvey-Morris, whose own dreams of a diploma were snatched away from her 77 years ago.

“This is just something I never thought would happen,” Harvey-Morris told the Falkville class of 2010, who adopted her and made her an honorary class member. Her fellow graduates were making amends to a woman affected by the Great Depression in the 1930s. Faced with an insurmountable budget crunch, Falkville High School was shuttered just months before she was scheduled to graduate in May 1933.

Tough times
Harvey-Morris, whose story appeared on TODAY Tuesday, was a charter member of Falkville High. She had a typical high school girl’s life, partaking in sports and school plays with friends. But the Depression hit the largely agrarian northern Alabama community especially hard, and the local school board was forced to close the school just a semester before Earlene’s graduation.

Despite the missed opportunity to graduate, Harvey-Morris looked on the bright side of things — while many of her classmates became homeless, her father owned his farm and they managed to eke out a living.

“I was never hungry or cold, but we didn’t have much,” she told the Decatur Daily. “We were happy. We didn’t know any better.”

Eventually, the community managed to reopen the school, but Harvey-Morris was hit by a double whammy. For one thing, the reopened school had no bus service, and she lived 10 miles away. For another, Harvey-Morris had gotten married while the school was closed, and policies of the day dictated that students be single.

It was Earlene’s daughter-in-law, Shelby Morris, who took matters into her own hands. She approached the school about giving her mother-in-law her long-delayed diploma despite being one semester short of the technical requirement. “I thought 77 years of life experience would afford her the knowledge necessary for a semester of learning,” Morris told the Decatur Daily.

Twin diplomas
The school’s student council president, Morgan Morrow, was quick to join in advocating for Harvey-Morris. “I thought it was awful. There shouldn’t be obstacles like that for keeping someone from graduating.

Video: The 90-year-old graduate “We thought we had it bad,” Morrow told the Decatur Daily, comparing today’s recession to the Depression days Harvey-Morris lived through. “But it shows how lucky we are.”

An unassuming woman, Harvey-Morris likely wouldn’t have gone along with the graduation plan had her family and school not cooked up the surprise on the sly. But her son Bob Morris said the pride she felt when she marched up to collect her diploma was evident.

“I think it’s exhilarated her,” he said. “She’s finally achieving something that’s obviously meant so much to her.”

In fact, Harvey-Morris received two diplomas — one for her original graduating class of 1933, and one for her new adopted class of 2010.

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