LIBBY MARCH / VALLEY NEWS PHOTO
Mildred Gay, center, talks with Mertens House activity director Snooky Richards, of Bethel, right, after receiving her honorary high school diploma last week from Woodstock Union High School in Woodstock. At left is Gay’s niece, Diane Atwood, of Woodstock.
WOODSTOCK — Mildred Gay used a wooden handrail to support herself as a caregiver at Mertens House draped a green graduation gown over her white sweater. A green cap was then gently placed, like a crown, atop her head of thinning white hair.
At 103 years old, she needs the assistance of a wheelchair, she’s hard of hearing and wears round, gold rimmed glasses. While she isn’t as spry as most high school graduates, she can proudly match them with her new degree.
Gay was a high school junior or senior — she’s uncertain about the year — when she dropped out about 85 years ago to care for her ailing mother. As was typical in those days, when a parent became sick a child was often pressed into helping the family. Her father, a Woodstock farmer, couldn’t take care of the chores and his wife at the same time.
It wasn’t long before Gay herself was married and raising her own three children, and she never had the chance to finish high school.
But on Tuesday, Gay received an honorary diploma from Woodstock Union High School, where she would have graduated with the class of 1927 (give or take).
Gay has lived in Woodstock for 100 years — her family moved from New York when she was 3 years old. When Gay was a student at Woodstock High School, as it was then called, she would take her own horse and buggy to school, and in the winter, she would ride a horse drawn sleigh.
Each day, Gay meets with Snooky Richards, the activity director at Mertens House, a nursing care home in Woodstock. It’s Richards’ job to get to know each of the 14 residents, and she often asks Gay questions about her life while the two play Crazy Eights together.
“I’m interested in their history,” Richards said of the residents. “So just in conversation she would say, ‘Yea, I wish I had gone back and gotten my diploma.’”
So Richards called the school district and asked if Gay could still earn her high school diploma. Administrators said that probably wasn’t possible — but she could receive an honorary degree.
“They were even willing to have her come to graduation and receive it on stage, but Mildred has not left the facility in a couple of years,” Richards said.
If Gay couldn’t go to the graduation ceremony, the ceremony would come to her. Richards invited a few of Gay’s closest friends and borrowed a dark green graduation cap and gown — Woodstock Union High School’s colors.
As Gay was wheeled into the dining hall Tuesday, friends’ cameras flashed and someone whispered, “She looks 18 again.”
Alice Worth, superintendent of Windsor Central Supervisory Union, presented the small piece of paper with Gay’s full name, Theresa Mildred Gay, printed in cursive.
“The reason I wanted to be here in person is because for someone to care about education this much at your age is terrific,” Worth said during the short ceremony.
As Gay was wheeled out of the room, Beth Finlayson grabbed her hand and kissed her right cheek. Finlayson met Gay about 30 years ago when Finlayson was the director of the Thompson Senior Center where Gay would volunteer. An accomplished cook, Gay is known for her chocolate cake and rum balls. “She used to make the best fudge in the world,” Finlayson said.
Gay also worked as a caregiver, and cleaned houses and took care of families throughout Woodstock and Bridgewater. The children she cared for are now adults and still visit Gay at Mertens House.
She’s also a fierce correspondent and still writes letters on a daily basis in “readable” cursive and sends them out to family and friends, Richards said.
After receiving her honorary degree, Gay was joined by three friends and two nieces as they ate a vanilla cake that was decorated with pink trim and the words “Congratulations Mildred.” Tuesday’s ceremony was a surprise — Richards only told Gay about it an hour before it took place. Gay is quiet and shy, and Richards said she was worried that Gay would be nervous about all the attention, but didn’t put up a fuss.
While eating her cake, Gay was treated like a celebrity by some of the media that showed up for the event, including a local broadcast reporter who peppered her with questions like, “Are you going to the prom this year?” and “What was your favorite subject in high school?”
Gay’s nieces, Diane Atwood and Janet Pulling, sat with Gay as she ate her cake, and Pulling said that getting the honorary degree was the biggest thing that’s happened to her centenarian aunt in several years.
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