COLUMBUS — Back in 1925, Reba Williams missed getting her Mount Vernon High School diploma by one book report. On Wednesday, the 106-year-old officially “graduated” when Superintendent of Schools Steve Short presented her with a copy of her high school transcript and a Mount Vernon diploma.
“Congratulations, Reba,” said Short. “You’re the top of your class.”
Smiling, Williams replied, “that’s nice.”
Williams said the missed book report had nothing to do with her reading ability. An avid reader since childhood, Williams often skipped recess to read while the other children frolicked.
“The rest of the kids would play hide-and-seek at recess,” she said. “I would go outdoors, sit on the steps and read.”
Toward the end of her senior year, an English teacher assigned a book report on a book Williams had already read. She does not recall the name of the book, but since she did not like the book the first time around, she told the teacher she would not read it again. Although the school did offer to let her read the book over the summer and submit the required report, Williams stuck to her guns and was denied a diploma, even though she had essentially completed all 12 years of schooling.
“One thing about Mount Vernon,” Williams said, “it had good schools. There’s no excuse not to learn.”
Asked how she would counsel an 18-year-old today in the same book report situation, Williams reluctantly replied, “I suppose I would tell them to read it.”
“My grandmother was disappointed when Mother didn’t graduate,” said Reba’s daughter Lavata Williams. “And her Grandfather [Joseph] Booker, who had been a slave, said all his children had to graduate. Back then, and even when I was a kid, rules were rules. Even in the home, rules were rules. Grandma would have never thought they should have given Mother the diploma anyway. She was breaking what was required. Back then, and when I grew up, yes was yes and no was no. Rules and laws really meant something back then.”
Lavata, 79, said her mother’s philosophy has always been: “If there’s a problem, and there’s something you can do about it, you do it. If you can’t do anything about it, you turn it over to Jesus and let it go.”
Although she initially burst out laughing when she heard about her mother finally getting a diploma, Lavata said it really is delightful. “It’s kind of joyful,” she said, “especially since it’s gone all over the world. A friend said it was even in one of Jay Leno’s monologues.”
Rita and Fred Dailey were among those who worked to make sure Williams got her diploma, the delivery of which was expedited by Becky Boone of Herff Jones Company Diploma Center.
“A friend of ours who worked with Fred at the department of agriculture,” Rita Dailey, a retired MVHS English teacher said, “spotted the article about Reba (telling of her work as a cook for Louis Bromfield at Malabar Farm) in the Mansfield News Journal and asked if there was anything I could do. I talked with Steve Short who said he would take it to the board.”
The board subsequently voted unanimously to grant the diploma to Williams.
“As chairman of the English department for 20 years in Mount Vernon,” Dailey continued, “I would never condone someone refusing to do an assignment. However, over the years there have been a number of times when a student said, ‘I don’t like this book.’ or ‘I’ve already read this book,’ or ‘My parents don’t want me to read this book.’ In all those situations we then offer an alternative book.”
In addition to the Daileys and a neighbor, several of Reba’s family members were present for the bedside graduation ceremony held in the apartment Reba shares with Lavata. A cousin, Mount Vernon resident Diane Ryuse, was among the guests. Reba’s brother Charles Williams and his wife Margaret (Peterson) Williams were there, as were two of their grandchildren, Robert and Corey.
“This is wonderful,” said Robert, who came from Virginia. “She worked hard all of her life. To receive this at her age right now, it’s wonderful to see.”
Corey traveled from Indianapolis for the ceremony. “It’s quite an achievement,” he said. “We’re grateful the school board would grant her this diploma.”
“Reba has taught us all a lot in our lives,” said Margaret, “and she really deserved this.”
After she received the diploma, someone asked Reba if she was now going to apply to college.
“Oh, my goodness!” she replied.
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