When she was 13, Leona L. Paulus dropped out of school to help out on the family farm during the Great Depression. She tearfully watched as the yellow school bus rode by the South Jersey field where she tended chickens.
"I saw the kids and I wanted to be on the bus going to school," she recalled. "I used to cry all the time."
After graduating from eighth grade in 1934, Paulus was unable to continue her education. She was needed to help support the family by working the nearly 100-acre farm in Pittsgrove, Salem County, where she lived with her paternal uncle raising cattle and growing vegetables.
Paulus never got a chance to get her diploma — until now, nearly 80 years later. Five days after her 96th birthday in June, she took the HiSet Exam, given to youths and adults who have left school. She aced it, passing all five sections.
"I didn't want to do it at first," she admitted. "I hoped and prayed I would pass it."
Paulus said counselors at the Mid-Atlantic States Career and Education Center in Pennsville, a nonprofit that provides GED prep courses and testing, helped persuade her to take the alternative test. The grandmother of 12 said she wanted to encourage young people to continue their education no matter the obstacles.
"She probably is the oldest who has taken and passed the high school proficiency test" in New Jersey, said Glen Donelson, president and chief executive of the center, which serves 10 counties, including Burlington, Camden, and Gloucester. "She is an inspiration. It's never too late."
In 2016, more than 4,700 people statewide completed requirements for a high school proficiency diploma, according to David Saenz Jr., a spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Education. The state does not track their ages.
"Anecdotally, I am not aware of any person previously completing the requirements for a New Jersey state-endorsed high school diploma at that age or higher," Saenz said.
Paulus, also known as "Annie Lee," will receive her diploma Tuesday at a noon celebration at Elmer Grange Hall in Elmer. A host of dignitaries is expected to attend, along with her pastor, family, and friends.
"She's been my sole teacher of everything. She was always encouraging me," said her son, Lou, 71, who now lives in Tennessee. In 1963, he became the first Paulus male to graduate from high school.
Born in 1921 in Deerfield Township, Paulus was the second of eight children. Her father, Henry Garrison, was a sharecropper in the rural Cumberland County community and her mother, Alma, a homemaker.
Paulus said things went "kafooey" when she was 9 and her parents divorced. The family struggled to make ends meet during the Depression. They survived with food donations and hand-me-down clothes. Paulus and her seven siblings — five girls and two boys — were eventually split up, each one taken in by a relative. Paulus reunited with her sisters decades later.
"We didn't have money for food. There were no jobs," she recalled. "It was terrible."
She went to live with an uncle, Edward Garrison, and his wife in Pittsgrove. The living conditions there were somewhat primitive compared with the new home her parents built in Linwood before the family separated. There was no electricity or indoor plumbing.
But "we had plenty to eat there and I said, 'I shouldn't complain,' " Paulus said.
She attended school in a two-room building in nearby Greenville. She enjoyed spelling, arithmetic, and history, but wasn't overly fond of geography.
"I liked school," said Paulus, who wanted to become a nurse.
But her schooling quietly came to an end in 1934. She was 13. Without much discussion from her aunt and uncle, Paulus said it was made abundantly clear that she would not be allowed to begin her freshman year at Bridgeton High School. Her future husband also dropped out several years later in his junior year to work on his family's farm.
"I wasn't mouthy then, so I didn't say anything," she recalled of the end of her schooling. "I just took whatever they said."
She stayed at the farm until 1940, when she married Louis Paulus, a childhood classmate. The couple operated a cattle farm in Pittsgrove and raised their son, Louis Jr., and a daughter, Patricia.
In addition to helping her husband on the farm, she also worked at a now-closed Bridgeton clothing factory for 15 years, where she marked patterns for Army coats. She also drove a school bus and worked in a canning factory. Paulus gets a monthly pension of $32 from the clothing factory.
The couple sold their dairy farm in the late '80s and settled on a two-acre site in Elmer, where they built a two-bedroom home. Paulus lives there today. Her husband of 65 years passed away in 2005.
In the 1960s, she and a younger sister, Frances, attempted to complete their high school diploma through a GED program. But it didn't work out and that ended her quest until Donelson heard her story last year.
Donelson met Paulus at the Pittsgrove Senior Center, where she faithfully shows up three times a week for a nutrition program operated by Mid-Atlantic States Career and Education Center.
When Paulus lamented missing out on a high school prom and class reunions, Donelson suggested that she take the proficiency test. "I'm too old," she said.
Donelson persuaded her to take GED prep courses and counselors spent months working with her. They printed out assignments that typically would be completed online because Paulus was reluctant to try studying on a laptop.
"She just picked it right up. She's sharp," said Tracy Wiggins, a marketing specialist who worked with Paulus.
Mid-Atlantic, one of the first mobile proficiency-exam testers in the state, got permission to administer the test the old-fashioned way: paper and pen. Paulus had to answer questions in language arts, writing, social studies, science, reading, and math. Each section was worth 20 points. Her lowest score was 18.
Since passing the test, Paulus has become a celebrity at the senior citizen center. Her friend Dora Dragotta, 88, graciously served lunch Wednesday to the nonagenarian, the oldest among the group.
"She's such a sweet lady, always was," said her niece Laraine Rathof, who runs the nutrition program. "It's amazing at 96. I think it's great that she did it."
Paulus welcomes her role as a poster child for education, although she has no plans to pursue higher education. She has already inspired one reluctant proficiency test taker who said, "If a 96-year-old woman can do it, I can, too."
For more info about Mid-Atlantic States Career and Education Center visit https://wegrowpeople.org/