Catherine “Tina” Lancelotta had always been a whiz.
When her husband started a masonry business, she was given the job of double-checking his math on cost estimates for customers. When she worked in the drapery department at Jordan Marsh department store, she could mentally tabulate the amount of fabric it would take to cover a window’s dimensions. For years, her go-to pastime was crossword puzzles, and she completed one each night before bed.
And yet, the 101-year-old Woburn resident had one regret: She had never earned her high school diploma.
That changed Friday, when Lancelotta became the oldest person to ever receive a diploma from Woburn Memorial High School , 85 years after she was forced to drop out to support her family through the Great Depression.
Wheelchair-bound but ebullient, the centenarian rolled up to the school stage Friday morning to the tune of “Pomp and Circumstance” and accepted her degree as Mayor Scott Galvin, principal Joseph Finigan, and the student body cheered her on.
‘I was very, very proud of myself. I didn’t expect to have it in me!’Catherine Lancelotta
With the black leather-bound diploma in hand, she waved to the crowd. “It’s a joy to get this,” she proclaimed into the microphone.
“She was all excited,” said Lancelotta’s youngest daughter, Maureen DelCore, 71. “She was afraid to go up there, but she was all smiles.”
Speaking from her home in Woburn after the ceremony, she said she could not believe what had happened.
“I was very, very proud of myself,” she said. “I didn’t expect to have it in me!”
Lancelotta, who was born in Sicily but was brought to the United States months after her birth, had privately lamented to family for years that she was never able to attend her high school graduation, but she had accepted that she could not do much about it.
Nothing changed until last month when, in advance of her 101st birthday, Lancelotta granted an interview to Marie Coady , a local freelance journalist and history writer who writes a column for the Woburn Daily Times Chronicle.
In the interview, Lancelotta let slip her hushed regret.
“She reached out and grabbed my hand and told me the story about not being able to graduate,” Coady said. “She said it was the most hurtful thing in her life, not getting her high school diploma.”
Coady made a call to a person she knew at Lancelotta’s alma mater, Woburn Memorial High School, and staff and students proved delighted to welcome an almost-alumna into their fold.
They wanted to do it up big, so they invited Lancelotta to “graduate” before their Jingle Bell Rock holiday show.
“Her mouth fell open when we said, ‘They’re going to give you a diploma,’” DelCore recalled. “She said, ‘They are?!’”
“I was really surprised,” Lancelotta said. “I never knew that they could do something like this.”
Yet Lancelotta had always had the grades for academic success, her daughter said. She had maintained two As and four Bs in her classes and took a particular shine to her class on shorthand and typing.
Then, when she entered her sophomore year, duty called: Because she was the oldest of nine siblings, Lancelotta’s father told her, the task fell on her to quit school and start making money to help the family scrape through the depths of Great Depression.
The school’s principal wrote to Lancelotta’s father, begging him not to pull the bright 16-year-old out of school, Coady recounted.
But classes on reading and writing and arithmetic did not offer much comfort to hungry mouths.
“A lot of people in the Depression had to go to work,” DelCore said. “My mother, being the oldest, she had to quit school. They had so many kids, and they did not make much money in those days.”
Lancelotta went to work at Schrafft’s chocolate factory in Charlestown, logging 40-hour weeks for a weekly salary of $12.
At 18, she met her husband-to-be, Victor, at a dance, and factory jobs gave way to the hard work of child-rearing.
The little dream she had of earning her diploma got tucked underneath the weight of the day-to-day.
Eventually, the hope of ever going back to high school yielded to new, different joys: twelve grandchildren, fifteen great-grandchildren, and fourteen great-great grandchildren.
One thing was certain: All her children would earn their high school diplomas — she made sure of it.
When her son huffed about the drudgery of going to school, she made it clear that dropping out was not an option.
“She told him, ‘I’ll chase you every day until you get your diploma,’ ” DelCore said.