Got regrets? Here’s a reminder that it’s never too late to accomplish every goal on your list!
In 1938, Merrill Pittman Cooper finished his junior year of high school at Storer College, a boarding school in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia that had been established after the Civil War to educate formerly enslaved Black children. He was the only child of a single mother who worked as a housekeeper to pay his school tuition.
When his mom couldn’t come up with the final tuition payment, Merrill selflessly decided to drop out so she could move to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to be closer to family.
“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.
Even though he’d always dreamed of becoming a lawyer, Merrill shelved his ambitions and took a job in a department store. In 1945, he became one of the first Black trolley car drivers in Philly, where he endured ugly words of casual racism every day.
“It was tough when I first started,” he said. “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.”
Merrill often thought about going back to school to get his high school diploma, but life always seemed to get in the way.
“I got so involved in working and making a living that my dreams went out the window,” he admitted.
Merrill focused on the career he had, eventually becoming a bus driver after trolleys stopped running in Philadelphia. In his later years, he served in his worker’s union, even becoming president for a time. In 1978, he married his long-term girlfriend, Marion Beckerink, and became a stepfather to her three children.
Marion passed away in 2015, but Merrill has remained close with their kids. He’s now 101 years old and living in New Jersey. To this day, he still wonders what his life might have been like if he’d been able to stay in school all those decades earlier.
It was his stepson, Rod Beckerink, who decided that 84 years was long enough to wait for something Merrill had always wanted. In 2022, he reached out to Harpers Ferry National Historical Park and the Jefferson School District about getting Merrill an honorary degree. The schools agreed, so they arranged a surprise “faux graduation” ceremony at the Hyatt Regency in Jersey City.
After devising a cover story to get Merrill to the hotel, the school presented him with a graduation cap and gown, then performed a ceremony in front of all of his family members. Rod said his stepfather was “around the corner from tears” as he finally received the diploma he’d always dreamed of having.
“I never imagined that anything like this could happen,” Merrill said. “I can’t think of a happier day. Even though it took me awhile, I’m really happy to finally have it.”
It’s about time, we’d say! All of Merrill’s family members say he’s a brilliant man who could have been an incredible attorney, if times and circumstances had been different. As it is, he’s content to look at his shiny new diploma and know his was a life well lived.
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