COLUMBIA - The last time Nina Drew went to school, it was the 1950s. But Drew, who had attended Catholic school until high school, found the public setting much different than she expected, and she became discouraged - so much so that she left it to take a factory job.
Last month, some 50 years later, Drew got her GED through Columbia Public Schools at age 76. After having watched her children and grandchildren get their diplomas, she thought it was about time.
"Going to their graduations makes you feel odd, out of place," Drew said.
She had heard about the adult education program through the Columbia Career Center. Generally a six-week course, the program culminates in a 7 1/2-hour test covering math, reading, writing, social studies and science.
Drew walked a different path, taking about two years to finish the program largely because there were eight or nine months during which she worked the graveyard shift at a factory. Getting off work at 7:15 a.m., she was in class by 8:30 a.m. A lot of coffee and prayer helped her through those mornings, she said.
"She came up through the parochial system, so she was a very dutiful student," said Jeri Helgeland, Drew's teacher in the program. "She really wanted to work hard and do well and be as helpful as she could, also. I, of course, appreciated that."
In the half-century since Drew entered the work world, she has held many jobs; her favorite was at the old Osco Pharmacy on Providence Road near Broadway, where she clerked and helped the store's older patrons shop.
"It was like family," Drew recalled. "A lot of my customers would ask when I was going on duty." The store closed a few years ago, more or less disbanding the community of regulars and the people who served them.
Drew said that over the years there were only two jobs she didn't get because she hadn't finished high school: operating a tollbooth and working security at Columbia Regional Airport.
Although Drew is probably the oldest student Helgeland has had, she isn't the first senior to earn her GED."When I first started I had another student who was 65, 70," Helgeland said. "Oftentimes the older students haven't had as much of the higher math - they haven't even met it the first time around - so I'm sort of teaching it fresh."
In Drew's case, math was her biggest challenge, and she had to take the GED exam more than once to get a passing score. Now, she's interested in attending Moberly Area Community College, perhaps with an emphasis in financing or accounting. Right now, she does clerical work at Job Point in the Missouri Career Center, which she got through Experience Works, a federal program that primarily helps disabled senior citizens. Drew qualified because she has a pacemaker and is diabetic.
At her graduation ceremony held in early June, Drew was one of two speakers. She stood among 34 other graduates, with her family - children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren - watching her this time. Helgeland introduced her to the gathering, and Drew, at times in tears like her listeners, shared some of her life story.
"Miss Jeri made copies of my scores for her records and to let people know you are never too old to learn or succeed in life," Drew told the audience. "You can do it and think positive. A lot of prayer helps also. You have to believe in yourself and persevere. Most of all, don't give up. Be a winner."
Drew has also been inducted into the National Adult Education Honor Society.
"I finally made it," she said, "thanks to an excellent and caring teacher."