News March 29, 2022 at 10:30 am

101-year-old man finally receives high school diploma 84 years after dropping out because of poverty

Francis Akhalbey | Content Manager

Francis Akhalbey March 29, 2022 at 10:30 am

March 29, 2022 at 10:30 am | News

Merrill Pittman Cooper, 101, was recently awarded a high school diploma -- Photo Credit: Jefferson County WV Schools

A 101-year-old man, who dropped out of high school 84 years ago because his mother couldn’t afford his tuition, recently fulfilled a lifelong dream after he was awarded an honorary high school diploma.

According to The Washington Post, Merrill Pittman Cooper’s career was an esteemed one. Besides being one of the first Black trolley car drivers in Philadelphia, he was also a powerful union leader. But despite his achievements, it was also Cooper’s ultimate wish to graduate from high school.

During segregation in the 1930s, Cooper was enrolled at Storer College in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. The boarding school was initially established to provide education to children who were previously enslaved. That was after the civil war.

But shortly after completing his junior high school year at Storer College, Cooper said he noticed his mother couldn’t raise money to pay for his senior year tuition. As a result, he said he decided to drop out and help his mother financially, adding that he also asked her to relocate them to Philadelphia.

“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,” he recalled.

In Philadelphia, Cooper initially worked at an apparel store to support his mother. In 1945, he earned a job as a city trolley car operator. “It was tough when I first started,” Cooper said in reference to the racism he experienced at the time. “I wouldn’t want to repeat some of the things people said to me when they saw me operating the trolley. We had to have the National Guard on board to keep the peace.”

And though he was satisfied with his career, Cooper said his inability to graduate from high school always bothered him. “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 told The Washington Post. “I got so involved in working and making a living that my dreams went out the window,” he added.

But Cooper recently fulfilled that dream after his family surprised him with a graduation ceremony on March 19. That was made possible after Cooper’s son-in-law worked with Harpers Ferry National Historical Park and the Jefferson School District to organize the honorary event.

Asked how he felt after he was informed he was going to receive an honorary high school diploma, Cooper said he was “around the corner from tears.”

“I never imagined that anything like this could happen,” he added.

“I can’t think of a happier day. Even though it took me a while, I’m really happy to finally have it.”

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