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His 80-Year Recess Is Over

Learning: After dropping out of school in the 1920s, Cecil Smith, 94, of Westlake Village becomes the oldest known recipient of the GED.

January 24, 2002|STEVE CHAWKINS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The topic was: What have you learned since leaving school?

At first, the question rattled 94-year-old Cecil Smith, who, after all, had last attended class when Warren G. Harding was president.

Even so, he did well enough on the essay and four other test segments to become the oldest known recipient of the GED--a credential certifying knowledge equivalent to that of a high school graduate and, in Smith's case, then some.

A modest man with a strong voice and senatorial white hair, Smith hadn't cracked a textbook since dropping out of MacLean Junior High School in Terre Haute, Ind., at the age of 14. Eighty years later, he slowly donned cap and gown for a special ceremony Wednesday at the Conejo Valley Adult School in Thousand Oaks.

"It's really an honor," he told an assemblage of friends, relatives, school district officials and politicians' emissaries. "It's certainly appreciated."

An upholsterer by trade, Smith has never done much public speaking. But he held his own at the school ceremony and has agreed to give a brief pep talk for state prison inmates at Norco.

"I'm going to tell them they can do the same thing if they'd put their mind to it," Smith said. "It'd be a good thing for them."

Since 1942, the General Education Development test has offered a second chance to adults who leave school early. The average age of the 865,000 people who took it in 2000 was 25, but record-keeping through the years has been inconsistent, according to officials of the American Council on Education, which administers the test.

Still, Ben Justesen, a director for the national GED Testing Service, said he never has heard of a GED recipient older than Smith. He knew of a 90-year-old man in Arizona who earned the credential, and a woman who received it at 65 and got a doctorate 25 years later.

"We've checked on it with all the institutional memories we could put out a call to," Justesen said. "I found no one any older than Cecil Smith."

Even so, Smith didn't count on all the fuss--the chocolate cake, the TV camera, the official proclamations, the commendation from President Bush. But he appeared to relish the idea, dressing in a tuxedo for the occasion and murmuring, "Well, this is just wonderful" with the reading of each congratulatory note.

But Smith didn't take the test to inspire others or prove a point about the capabilities of the very old. It's just that his penmanship had gone downhill, and he figured it was time to improve it.

"When you don't write every day for 80 years, you get pretty rusty," he said. "I was married for 61 years and my wife did all the correspondence. About all I did was sign checks--and I was getting pretty bad at that."

In 1922, both of Smith's parents died, his mother from cancer and his father from a lung disease picked up in the coal mines. One of 13 children, he bunked with relatives for a while before finding his own room and a job. Within a few years, he was learning upholstery at a furniture factory in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Like millions during the Depression, he and his young wife Joanne came to California. They pitched a tent on the beach, found jobs, and 50 years ago bought two acres near Malibu's Paradise Cove for $10,000. Peacocks roamed the little spread that would be Smith's home even after Joanne's death in 1991.

"We grew our own vegetables," Smith said, beaming at the memory. "We had goats and chickens and ducks and bees."

For the last few years, Smith has lived with relatives in Westlake Village. Age has chipped away at him; his vision is failing, he wears three hearing aids, he has an artificial hip, and for 10 years he has dealt with prostate cancer. Fascinated by electric cars, he bought one just for the joy of it, although he can't drive it himself. He has taken a fancy to Verdi's operas and savors a cocktail every evening. When he can, he loves to waltz.

For all his interests, he never had expressed a desire to complete his education. But when his nephew Dick Kirkland mentioned that he had read something about GED classes at the local adult school, Smith was enthusiastic.

"Nothing in his daily routine prepared him for this," Kirkland said. "I suspect he has an ability to figure things out that we never recognized."

The GED test is given in sections that cover math, science, social studies, reading and writing. Poring over study materials at home, Smith came to school and relentlessly attacked each section.

"He didn't want to stop for lunch," said Melissa Nickles, a supervisor at the school.

So what has he learned since leaving school?

Smith paused before he spoke, as if to assign the proper weight to every word and the spaces between them.

"The first thing I learned was to get a job and learn a trade," he said. "Then in Malibu, I learned how to make chain-link fences, and how to take care of goats and bees. You've really got to know what you're doing to take care of bees."

As for the future, he said he plans to pick up a few computer skills. And to buy a three-wheeled bike for exercise.

And college?

"Not right away," he said, only half-joking.

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