Nation’s Oldest Graduating Senior

Hometown Heroes, People
on November 24, 2002

When high school dropout Cecil Smith took the test in January 2002 for his GED (General Educational Development) degree, the equivalent of a high school diploma, an essay question on the test asked, “What have you learned since high school?”

Describing what he had learned since high school in the space allotted would be impossible, Smith realized, because he had been out of school for 80 years.

“I had room for only a couple of hundred words,” he says.

At age 94, he was also concerned about his penmanship. “I couldn’t read my own writing,” he recalls. But his handwriting was up to the task: Smith passed the test and was awarded a diploma.

“We can’t find anyone older than Cecil who’s gotten his GED,” says Ben Justesen, a director for the national GED Testing Service.

Smith’s penmanship problem is what got it all started. His handwriting never had been good, so his wife had taken care of the couple’s writing requirements. Then after 61 years of marriage, his wife died, and Smith was stuck. He wondered if he could go back to school and fix his penmanship.

Smith of Westlake Village, Calif., (pop. 8,368) had been living with his nephew, Dick Kirkland, when the latter heard of an 80-year-old student receiving his GED at Conejo Valley Adult School in nearby Thousand Oaks, Calif. Kirkland suggested that Smith give the school a try.

“It was pretty amazing,” says Michele Arso, the school’s Learning Center program coordinator. “We thought having an octogenarian student was something—then Cecil came along.”

Smith quickly went from wanting to improve his penmanship to wanting to get his high school diploma. After giving him a practice test, the Learning Center staff came up with an individualized approach for Smith.

“We have great staff and facilities,” Arso adds, “but it’s a lab environment, where each student has to study individually. Cecil did all the work himself.”

Smith had dropped out of high school when his parents died. At age 14, he had to fend for himself.

“I had to learn a trade,” Smith says, “So I moved from Indiana to Michigan and learned to be an upholsterer.”

After he got married as a young man, Smith’s wife wanted to move to California, so the couple settled in Los Angeles. “This was in the middle of the Depression,” he says. “We camped on the beach for three days until I got a job.”

Soon, Smith bought two acres of land in Malibu, Calif., which he still owns. “Originally I raised goats and poultry on that land while I worked as an upholsterer,” he says. “Even (raised) bees. Survived earthquakes and brushfires. But I got a hip replacement and had to give up the animals.”

After Smith passed the GED test and earned his diploma, Arso and the rest of the staff threw him a party.

“They had balloons, a cake, reporters, TV people,” he says. “It was quite something.”

“Cecil really surprised us,” Arso says. “Here he was, this quiet, focused student, and at the ceremony he was wearing a tuxedo, and we saw how much energy and charisma he had. He charmed everybody.”

Smith hadn’t intended to become a role model, but if he inspires others to get their diplomas, he’ll be delighted.

“I would recommend going back to get your diploma for anybody—it does a lot of good just to know you did it,” he says.

Now with his high school diploma finally in hand, Smith isn’t about to stop learning. “I went out and bought one of those electric cars,” he says. “I’m up for any scheme that will improve the environment.”

His future academic plans call for computer classes. “I’ll study up on computers next,” he says. “Things are changing all the time, you know.”