By ALYSSA HARVEY of the Daily News, firstname.lastname@example.org/783-3257 bgdailynews.com | 0 comments
The 85-year-old Bowling Green man is the oldest person in the history of Bowling Green Technical College’s Adult Education Commencement Center to receive a diploma. He was one of about 150 adults who passed the GED test this year and one of 40 who chose to participate in Friday’s ceremony.
“I wasn’t expecting that,” he said shortly after the ceremony. “I didn’t know everyone knew who I was.”
Smothers wasn’t doing it to become a part of BGTC history. His reason was much deeper than that.
It all started with encouragement from the woman he calls his “best friend.”
A love story
Smothers’ wife, Runelle, died 16 months ago.
“We were married 46 years, three months and one week,” Smothers said Thursday as he sipped coffee at Bob Evans Restaurant, where he is a regular customer.
It seems miraculous considering the couple married the first time they laid eyes on each other. A mutual friend suggested that they write letters to get to know each other. Soon, phone calls began. When Frank, a former jockey, proposed, Runelle said yes. He flew to Louisville, where his soon-to-be bride worked at a beauty shop, and they went to Tennessee to get married.
“We could get a marriage license and blood test the same day,” said Smothers, who still faithfully wears his wedding band on his left ring finger.
The couple enjoyed life and eventually had a daughter, Rachelle, and later a granddaughter, Cheyenne, now 9 years old. From time to time, though, his wife would gently encourage him to get his GED diploma. He had only gone to school through the eighth grade.
“I didn’t enroll in high school. It wasn’t required,” he said. “I told Runelle that I want to (spend time) with her and our daughter. I didn’t want to put my time studying like that.”
Things changed after she died, though. He went through a deep depression, losing 18 pounds on his already slender 5-foot-2-inch frame. His daughter found a grief support group at Living Hope Baptist Church.
“My daughter said I looked like a walking skeleton,” he said.
After attending the support group, the World War II and Korean War veteran decided to do something to honor the woman he
“She’d say, ‘You’re entitled to it. You’ve earned it,’ ” he said.
The road to earning his diploma wasn’t as smooth as Smothers thought it would be. He didn’t know he would have to take five preliminary tests before the actual exam. If he didn’t pass those, he’d have to take classes.
“Some of this stuff I was wondering, ‘Why are they asking these kind of questions? Do other people not know this?’ ” he said.
After viewing his scores, Smothers was asked if he would be interested in going to college.
“I said no,” he said.
He was more interested in fulfilling his wife’s wishes, but there was one stumbling block. His math score wasn’t high enough to take the main exam. The test required a calculator and Smothers had never used one.
“My wife used a calculator. My daughter used a calculator,” he said. “I do all my work with a pencil, a piece of paper and my head.”
His second try at the preliminary test yielded the same results – high scores, particularly in social studies, but not high enough in math. He was able to get answers, but they weren’t coming fast enough because he wasn’t using a calculator.
“They’d ask me, ‘How’d you get (the answer)? I’d say, ‘Up here,’ ” he said, pointing to his head.
Smothers finally realized he had to learn what he called “new math,” so his friend, Tom Blaha, and his granddaughter, Cheyenne, helped him learn. He had to get used to viewing the calculator, which has numbers 7 through 9 on the first row, as something different than a telephone, which has numbers 1 through 3 on the first row. Soon he was ready to take his third preliminary test.
“If I don’t get enough on the preliminary test, I’m through with it,” he said of his thoughts at the time.
The third time was the charm. After nine months of hard work, Smothers passed the test. He was thrilled.
“I said, ‘Thank you, God, and thank you Runelle!’ ” he said with a wide smile. “You two stuck with me.”
While he has passed the test, Smothers said it “hasn’t sunk in yet.”
“I was supposed to do it, and I did it,” he said.
After the ceremony, though, he smiled from ear to ear.
“Now I’m excited,” he said.
His family was also elated. Rachelle Siebert, her husband, Paul, and their daughter, Cheyenne, were also at the ceremony. Cheyenne, who said she felt “good” about her Papa graduating, nodded her head when asked if she helped teach him to use a calculator.
“They were studying with the calculator (at school) so she told him,” Rachelle Siebert said.
Working for the diploma was something he could “shoot for and focus on” after her mother’s death, Siebert said.
“It was very emotional. I was up there crying,” she said. “I’m proud of him. He’s a special man – a stubborn man, but he has a heart of gold.”
Mark Brooks, BGTC director of public relations, said Smothers’ story is “wonderful.”
“It’s a goal with an emotional attachment. It was amazing,” he said.
Margaret Sullivan, administrative assistant for Adult Education at BGTC, didn’t work with Smothers on his classes, but saw him daily.
“It was just a joy and encouragement to see someone at his age returning to school. That was his wife’s wish,” she said. “He had people come up to him and say, ‘You’re such an encouragement to me,’ and it encouraged them to hang in there, too.”
Smothers doesn’t think of his accomplishment as anything unusual.
“Everybody can do it if they try hard enough,” he said.
Smothers tried hard, said Andrea Brant, GED math and science instructor at BGTC.
“When we get students there are big gaps in math. If you don’t use it, you lose it after a while,” she said. “He had to have a big paradigm shift about math. I knew he would be tempted to quit. I knew how hard it was for him.”
Smothers said he doesn’t want to go to college. Instead, he plans to put his diploma on the wall beside his late wife’s, just as she would have wanted him to do. He hopes to have his diploma say that he graduated from Glasgow.
“When I married her, she was living there,” he said. “That’s what I want it to say