A diploma awarded 84 years later

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In October, Frances Elliott's family threw a party for her 100th birthday. Now, her relatives are planning her high school graduation party.

On Thursday, Mrs. Elliott, of McKees Rocks, will receive an honorary high school diploma from the Sto-Rox School District. She never got her diploma in 1928 because she dropped out of the former Miles Bryan High School several months before graduation to help support her family.

Miles Bryan served as the high school for McKees Rocks from 1927 until 1966, when McKees Rocks and Stowe merged to form the Sto-Rox School District.

"It was the Depression," Mrs. Elliott said in an interview Friday, explaining why she needed to get a job to help support her parents and two siblings.

At the time, Mrs. Elliott begged her mother to allow her to remain in school long enough to get her diploma. But, according to her granddaughter Chrissy Corcoran of Kennedy, Mrs. Elliott's mother responded, "Frances, we are starving."

So Mrs. Elliott took a job at Bell Telephone, lying about her age on her application, making herself a year older because she was supposed to be 18 to qualify for the operator's position.

In March 1931, she married Minnis Elliot, a railroad worker, and moved into his family home in McKees Rocks, where she still lives. The couple had five children. Mrs. Elliott survived her husband, who died in 1991, and all of her children except daughter Jean Marsh, who lives in St. Charles, Mo.

Mrs. Elliot has six grandchildren, 13 great-grandchildren and five great-great grandchildren, many of whom live nearby and visit frequently. Granddaughter Dawn Fitzwater lives across the street and provides daily care for Mrs. Elliot so she can continue to live in her home.

Mrs. Elliott has lived through two World Wars, the Great Depression, Korean War, Vietnam War and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. She said her earliest memory is from the day in second grade World War I was declared over.

"It comes to my mind -- running home crying from school because all of the people were screaming and fire whistles were blowing. I was scared to death because I didn't know what was going on," she said.

She can no longer walk and uses a wheelchair to get around. She is losing her eyesight to macular degeneration. But she still cares for her cat, Charlie, and a stray cat who visits when she sits on her deck. She tends to her African violets and washes her dishes.

She doesn't like to be the center of attention and said she doesn't understand all of the fuss being made over her finally receiving her diploma. But Mrs. Corcoran said part of the reason Mrs. Elliott agreed to go along with the public presentation is to send a message to her great and great-great-grandchildren about the importance of education.

Mrs. Corcoran said her grandmother has spoken over the years about her regrets over not getting a high school diploma. She talked about it again on Easter, when she gave her granddaughter, Meaghan Corcoran, her copy of the 1928 "Roxian" yearbook. The book listed Mrs. Elliott as a member of the "Girl's Reserve Club," whose purpose was to "find and give the best to promote friendship among the girls of our high school."

After seeing the yearbook, Chrissy Corcoran contacted her friend, Lori Sims, a teacher in the Sto-Rox district, to see if her grandmother could somehow get her diploma. Ms. Sims contacted superintendent Michael Panza, who told Mrs. Elliott's story to the school board.

Mrs. Elliott will receive her honorary diploma at the school board meeting at 7 p.m. Thursday in the high school cafeteria. Her grandchildren have a graduation cap ready for her and may include a gown as well.

When asked what she thought about her upcoming diploma ceremony, Mrs. Elliott said: "It's a little late."

And though Mrs. Elliott doesn't talk a lot, when she does speak, it's obvious she hasn't lost her sense of humor.

Mrs. Corcoran said her grandmother recently commented that she was looking forward to receiving her high school diploma so she could be recognized for something other than getting older.

She said her grandmother joked that to live to 100, "all I had to do was keep breathing."

education - neigh_west

Mary Niederberger: mniederberger@post-gazette.com; 412-263-1590. First Published June 16, 2012 4:00 AM


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