A 97-year-old Ohio woman who dropped out of high school during the Depression to help support her family finally received her diploma this week at the same high school she once attended.
Ann Colagiovanni, who arrived in America with her parents on a boat from Sicily in the early 1900s, dropped out of high school in 1931 when her father asked her to help at the family’s butcher shop. She never returned to high school, much to her and her father’s dismay, according to Peggy Caldwell, director of communications for the Shaker Heights, Ohio, school district.
Years later, as her grandson Thomas prepared to graduate from Shaker Heights, Colagiovanni received a surprise: her old high school would present her with an honorary degree marked with the date 1934, the year she would have graduated had she not dropped out.
“It is very rare, and it’s honorary,” Caldwell said. “We can’t stand up there and say she got all the requirements, but you could tell it meant a lot to her. She kept looking at it pointing and saying ‘That’s my name on there! That’s my name!’”
Colagiovanni’s daughter, Emilia Colagiovanni Vinci, arranged for her mother to receive the diploma at the same graduation as Emilia’s son. The school held a private ceremony for the grandmother on Wednesday, with the superintendent dressed in full academic robe, and then Colagiovanni wore her graduation gown to her grandson’s larger ceremony on Thursday.
“She came to her grandson’s graduation in her wheelchair with her little cap and gown on,” Caldwell said. “She’s just adorable.”
At the small ceremony just for her, Colagiovanni talked about growing up during the Depression, wearing the same dress to school everyday because she could not afford another one, Caldwell said. She would wash the dress every night and iron it each morning, hoping it would wear out so she could buy a new one.
Emilia Colagiovanni brought her mother’s old yearbooks, showing the students showing up at the brand new, state-of-the-art high school that had been built for them in the 1930s. That building, which Shaker Heights students still use today, is now considered old and outdated, Caldwell said.
“You could tell it meant a lot to her,” Caldwell said.