Willie Dell Grimes sat eagerly, and perhaps just a bit nervously, at a high school desk in 1993, waiting to take her first class in 46 years.
As the other students filed in, they approached Willie Dell with a slip of paper they were instructed to give the teacher before that first class.
“They would come in handing them to me and I told them, ‘I’m a student too’,” Willie Dell recalls. “I was old enough to be some of their mothers – and some of their grandmothers.”
The fact that Willie Dell was sitting in an adult education class in preparing to earn her high school diploma at age 60 may have surprised her younger classmates. But those who know Willie Dell, including her family, were not surprised at all.
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The fact that the now 83-year-old persevered until she received that diploma 24 years later – nearly two decades after she completed the classes she started that night – doesn’t surprise them either.
“She’s a model example of lifelong learning,” says Bobby Cunningham, principal of the W.R. Rogers Adult Education Center in Richland 2. “She makes Richland 2 proud to have been a part of her story.”
That story starts in the 1940s, when pursuing an education in rural areas of South Carolina wasn’t always easy. Willie Dell’s family lived in Poplar Grove, nine miles from Bamberg. There was a small school in their community, Poplar Grove School, that served students through seventh grade. But after that they had to commute to Bamberg to attend Richard Carroll High School to continue their education.
Willie Dell was good at math and wanted to be a “school teacher,” and she wanted to continue school. But she had no way of making the nine-mile trip to Bamberg.
She married Jack E. Grimes at an age when most girls today are thinking about prom dates and Friday night football plans. Over the next 17 years she became the mother of 12 children – five boys and seven girls. Two children died at the young ages of 3 and 5. She lost an adult son, age 64, on March 30 of this year.
Ten children graduated high school and went on to higher education. Her children became military members, a horticulturist, a firefighter/paramedic, ministers, nurses, counselors, business owner, financial manager, an industrial personnel administrator and an educator.
Her grandchildren – she has 25, along with 26 great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren – followed in the footsteps of their parents who were dedicated to getting a great education. Willie Dell made sure of that, and she is very proud of all of her generations.
“That made me feel good,” Willie Dell says. “Made me feel like I was doing a mother’s duty.”
She spent 35 years raising her children, then later took care of her husband of 42 years, who passed away in 1991. It was after that Willie Dell decided to return to school. Her children and grandchildren encouraged her.
“My reaction was, ‘I’m going to help her’,” says Susie Grimes, Willie Dell’s daughter. “We all backed her up, 100 percent. We said, “You always pushed us to go. Now it’s our turn to help you. We all got together and encouraged her to do it … including the grandkids.”
As the educator in the family, Susie knew how very different things were going to be for her mother in the 1990s, versus in the 1940s. “But she was determined.”
So Willie Dell started night classes in 1993.
“I had to start with the basics,” Willie Dell says. Her favorite subject was still math.
“I’ve never seen someone who could add up fractions in her head like her, and reduce them even with uncommon denominators,” Susie says.
She undoubtedly was good at social studies too – she got a class award for that.
Her worst subject? “Spelling,” Willie Dell says with a smiling grimace.
In 1999, Willie Dell earned her high school certificate, signifying that she had successfully completed the classwork requirements for a high school degree.
All of her family attended the ceremony, where she wore a white cap and gown. She was one of the graduation speakers and captivated everyone there. There were a lot of tears, Susie said – included those who didn’t know her mother.
“Everyone hung on every word,” Susie says. “There was a baby crying, and even the baby stopped crying when she spoke.”
Some of the students in the adult program who started with Willie Dell dropped out. But there was no way she was going to.
“I made up my mind that I wasn’t going to be a dropout twice,” Willie Dell says. “At recess, they all went out and would take a break, and I would sit there and get my work done.”
She did speak with her classmates. “I did give them a lot of encouragement, let them know they had a good opportunity.”
But even though she was proud of her certificate, it was the high school diploma she had coveted. The diploma required the passing of an exit exam.
Until Act 155.
In 2014, the South Carolina General Assembly passed Act 155, which eliminated the exit exam and allowed individuals who did not receive a high school diploma because they did not pass the exam, to file a petition with their local school board for a diploma.
Richland District 2 helped Willie Dell with the process of applying for her high school diploma via Act 155.
The result? Willie Dell finally received her high school diploma at a Richland District 2 board meeting last month. This time she wore a Richland Northeast High cap and gown.
“Now she’s a Cavalier,” Susie says.
Many of her family showed up this time, and although it was perhaps a more low key affair, it was still a big moment for the woman who was forced to drop out of school for lack of transportation seven decades ago.
“I was very proud,” says Willie Dell, who celebrates her 84th birthday this month. “That was the main goal; I wanted to get my diploma.”
Her days at school may not be over. Willie Dell dreamed of being a teacher when she was younger and she may at least get a taste of that. Cunningham plans to use Willie Dell’s accomplishments as an example for future students at W.R. Rogers Adult Education Center and plans to ask her to speak to classes, saying Willlie Dell epitomizes the center’s “four squares to success” – learning, character, community and joy.
“She certainly set an example.”