Margaret Thome Bekema never graduated from Grand Rapids Catholic Central High in 1936 like she was supposed to. Instead she had to leave school to take care of her mother, who was sick with cancer, and siblings.

After nearly eight decades, 97-year-old Margaret Thome Bekema was presented an honorary diploma from Catholic Central High on Thursday.

“I thank you from the bottom of my heart,” said a tearful Bekema, after receiving the diploma from Catholic Central Principal Greg Deja at a ceremony attended by the woman’s family and friends at the Yorkshire and Stoneridge Manor senior community.

Bekema gets emotional talking about the circumstances that prevented her from graduating with her Class of 1936.

She left her junior year because her mother, Katherine, was ill with cancer and she was called on by her father, Leo Thome, to care for her and her siblings while he worked. She had three younger siblings, two of whom were much younger.

She said leaving school at age 17 broke her heart.

“I had to quit school to take over the family,” said Bekema, who said she cooked, cleaned and made all their clothes. “It was hard, you have no idea how hard that was. I loved high school and I had lots of friends.”

Bekema, who said she was an A-B student, proudly sported her blue graduation cap and gold honor cords. She also received a certificate as the latest member of the school’s alumni association, “The Pride.”

“Her life has been one of sacrifice and service,” said Deja. “It has been so encouraging and inspiring for our community because her choices represent all the core values that we teach our students.”

Gerri Smith, a Catholic Central graduate and one of Bekema’s two children, said her mother cared for her grandmother until she died. She said she has always regretted not graduating and was excited to finally get the honor.

“She is the type of person that whatever life hands her, she just deals with it very graciously,” said Smith. “She does what has to be done and she doesn’t complain about it or make a big deal about it, she just does it.”

Bekema, a widow, has four grandchildren and one great grandson. She said she loved working in the preschool at Grace Episcopal Church for 17 years.

“The director of the school was an angel, and we had some little pistols,” said Bekema, who said she later worked in an office for a government agency during World War II.

Her husband, Ted, was a military man. She fondly remembers their first date, sitting down for a Vernors. She said they had a good life together.

Sister Maureen Geary, the daughter of Bekema’s cousin Marian, contacted the school in August about the honorary diploma. She said she had been thinking about it for a while.

“She has been so self-giving all her life,” said Geary, who said Bekema cared for her when she was a baby for about six weeks while her mother was ill.

But thanks to a distant relative, Bekema recently received an honorary diploma from the school, 79 years after she was originally supposed to graduate.




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Recognised as one of the Mail and Guardian’s Top 200 Young South African’s as well as a Primedia LeadSA Hero, Brent is a change maker, thought leader, radio host, foodie, vlogger, writer and all round good guy.

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