It’s just a piece of paper but to Cora Lee Silvey Chandler, who lived and worked in the Vandalia area, it represents an accomplishment that’s been delayed for almost five decades.
Chandler, who is retiring as an Experience Works employee at the not-for-profit North East Community Action Corporation (NECAC), received her honorary Bowling Green High School diploma Feb. 28 from Superintendent Darin Powell.
The presentation came almost 48 years after she was supposed to walk across the stage. But in the spring of 1964, a classmate told school authorities that Chandler was pregnant.
“At the time, they did not let pregnant girls go to school,” Chandler recalled.
“The undoing was mine. It was a rule at the time. Can you blame the system for a rule that was in effect?”
Chandler and her husband, Sam, were married on May 2, 1964. She never told anyone that she didn’t have a high school diploma.
“I always felt insecure because I didn’t have it,” she said.
In the 1960s, Chandler remembers, jobs were abundant.
She worked in a garment factory, a brick plant, a nursing home, a plastics factory and a butcher shop.
Attitudes about teen pregnancy weren’t the only societal misunderstandings, Chandler found out.
When her son, Sam, died with cerebral palsy at age six, the factory that employed Chandler told her to shrug it off and get back to work after only a couple of days’ leave.
“To me, they didn’t have any compassion,” she said.
Another son, Travis, died in a car accident in 2001. Chandler, however, resolved not to be angry. She and her husband have five other children and 12 grandchildren.
“Life has been good to me,” Chandler said.
“My proudest accomplishment is my family.”
Still, Chandler felt like there was something missing. She was embarrassed that she didn’t have a high school diploma
“I wouldn’t go for another job because I didn’t have my degree,” she said.
“I’ve only had to fill out two job applications in my 66 years. Believe it or not, I didn’t get those jobs.”
Chandler didn’t tell her children about her lack of a diploma until they’d graduated.
“I’ve always stressed the importance of education because I didn’t have one,” she said. “You always want better for your kids than what you had.”
Chandler started in the NECAC In–Home Health and Senior Services Department through the Experience Works program in February 2011.
Recently, the topic of high school diplomas came up and, for the first time in public, Chandler sheepishly admitted she didn’t have one.
In-Home Administrative Assistant Cathy Bibb called a school board member, who contacted Powell. State records showed Chandler had enough credits to graduate.
“I could tell how much it meant for her to have it,” Bibb said. “I knew it was something very passionate to her heart.”
Chandler isn’t bitter that it’s taken almost 50 years to get what was rightfully hers so long ago.
“You have to make yourself the person you want to be,” she said. “You can’t blame the system or other people for your misdoings. To me, money has never been important. It’s what you make of life that’s important.”
Chandler plans to spend part of her retirement adding on to the cabin she and her husband own along the Mississippi River at Louisiana.
But now that she has that piece of paper in her hands, she hasn’t ruled out a return to the workforce.
“I’ll just go out to all these places and fill out an application just to say ‘I’ve got my diploma,’” she said.
“I just have one question: Do I celebrate with the Class of ’64 or the Class of 2012?”