A West Virginia native is living proof that it’s never too late to fulfill a life-long dream. According to WBAL-TV, 101-year-old Merrill Pittman Cooper recently received an honorary diploma.
Cooper attended Storer College between 1934 and 1938 as a high school scholar. The historic institution was created in 1867 to provide learning opportunities for former slaves who had been emancipated. It emerged into a pillar for Black education within the Harpers Ferry community. The school shuttered in 1955 following the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision to desegregate learning institutions. Throughout its existence, the college served nearly 7,000 students.
During his time at Storer, Cooper was enrolled in the institution’s high school program where he took college preparatory courses centered on English, history, the sciences and different languages. He wanted to further his education and attend college, however, financial setbacks deterred him from realizing that goal. After relocating to Philadelphia with his family, Cooper spent five decades working in the transportation industry. He became the first Black trolley car driver in the city and rose up the ranks to serve as president of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority’s Local 234 union. In 1980, he became vice president of the International Transport Workers Union in New York City.
Despite having a barrier-breaking career, he desired to have his high school diploma. His family worked with the West Virginia Department of Education, Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, Jefferson County Schools and the Storer College National Alumni Association to honor his academic achievements.
A graduation ceremony was recently hosted for Cooper in Jersey City. “I never imagined that anything like this could happen,” he told the Washington Post. “I can’t think of a happier day. Even though it took me a while, I’m really happy to finally have it.”
Bondy Shay Gibson-Learn—who serves as Jefferson County Schools superintendent—says the organizations involved were grateful to play a part in making Cooper’s dream come true.