BEECH BOTTOM - Ninety-five-year-old Pete Lonchar said he always has regretted dropping out of high school, though his situation made it hard to stay in school.
Not receiving a high school diploma was something that has bothered the Weirton native and resident of Valley Haven Geriatric Center for many years, so finally receiving one was a special moment.
Sara Johnson, a speech-language pathologist at the long-term care and skilled facility, said for Lonchar, it was not enough to receive the diploma.
PROUD MOMENT — Ninety-five-year-old Pete Lonchar, a Weirton native and resident of Valley Haven Geriatric Center, gives a thumbs up after receiving a high school diploma, something he has long wanted to possess. Wanting to earn the diploma, Lonchar was given homework by a speech-language pathologist at the long-term care and skilled facility. - Warren Scott
He also wanted to work for it.
"He told me he wanted to feel equal to the people he would have graduated with," Johnson said.
Karen Shilling, who is social service director and admission coordinator at Valley Haven, said Johnson prepared daily assignments in English, math and science for Lonchar.
"He's been working really, really hard. He's been doing homework and honing his cognitive skills," she said.
"I tried to work hard at it. I had a very good teacher," said Lonchar of Johnson, who said she once aspired to be a teacher.
Meanwhile Shilling contacted Dan Enich, principal at Weir High School, about the possibility of a diploma being awarded to Lonchar. She said Enich and Frances Games, a secretary at the school, were supportive and helpful from the start.
Enich told her an honorary diploma could be issued to Lonchar, she said, and Hancock County school officials took steps to make that happen and provided a cap and gown for him to keep.
Shilling noted Wilkin Flower Shop also supplied a boutenir for Lonchar and a corsage for Dorothy, his wife of 71 years, to wear at the diploma's presentation.
The Wintersville Riesbeck's Food Store provided a graduation cake at a discount.
Virginia Forker, president of the center's resident council and a former teacher, was recruited to present the diploma to Lonchar before a large gathering of residents and staff. Her voice wavered as she told him, "We are all very proud of you."
With Dorothy at his side, Lonchar wiped a tear from his eye as he accepted the diploma, then gave a thumbs up.
"I feel very, very good. Thanks to all the people who helped me get it," he said.
Prior to that moment, Lonchar said, "I wanted to get my high school diploma for years. I didn't want to be left behind."
Asked what led him to drop out of school, Lonchar said he grew up in a poor family and left school to work to help his parents and siblings financially. He already had worked as a janitor while attending sixth through eighth grades, he recalled.
Lonchar said he and his four brothers and sister all worked at various times as they were growing up. His father was among the many husbands of that day who didn't want their wives to work, but he planted three gardens to provide affordable food for his family, Lonchar recalled.
He said after leaving school, he was working as a millwright for Republic Steel in Massillon, when he was drafted at age 23 to serve in World War II.
He served in the Army Air Corps, a precursor to the Air Force, but wasn't deployed overseas because his younger brother was killed in an airplane crash while also serving in the Army Air Corps.
Following his discharge, he went to work for the former National Steel, where he worked for 35 years, primarily as a boiler repairman.
He and Dorothy had two sons who have died, one in a recent motorcycle accident, and a daughter. They also have a grandson and great-granddaughter.
Lonchar said while he was able to find a job after dropping out of school, times have changed and he doesn't encourage teens to do that now.
"At that time, if you were old enough, the company would hire you. Today the kids can't get jobs," he said.