For two of Simon Gratz High School's graduates yesterday, some typical "What am I going to do next?" dilemmas didn't apply.

Neither Marion Goldsmith Klarman, 91, nor Dorothy Watson McAuley, 85, feels pressured to head straight to college (though Klarman says she's thinking about it).

Nor is either woman planning to rush into starting a big family.

For both Klarman - with two children, nine grandchildren, and 12 great-grandchildren - and McAuley - two children, three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren - it's kind of been there, done that.

Anyway, it probably will be a while before the thrill of yesterday's graduation ceremony at New Covenant Church on Germantown Avenue wears off, and future plans move front and center.

Klarman, of Mount Laurel, and McAuley, of Flourtown, who met for the first time yesterday, had to quit Simon Gratz High School more than 65 years ago when financial pressure on their families forced them to go to work.

The "Honorary Diplomas" the women received yesterday came with seats of honor onstage and the same gowns and mortarboards worn by the 268 "regular" Gratz grads whooping it up over their own milestones. The moment fulfilled, according to their children, decades of hope that the two women could finish what they had started.

"All of our lives, that's all she talked about," confided McAuley's daughter Susan Janicz, a financial analyst in Ardmore. "How upset she was that she didn't have a diploma. That's why she encouraged us to make sure we all went to school and did well."

"This really was a dream for her," said Klarman's daughter, April Apfelbaum, a human-resources specialist in Philadelphia. "I said to her now she needs to live to see all her great-grandchildren graduate high school."

The senior grads appeared full of beans on their big day, tapping their feet and clapping when some members of the class offered a rendition of Mariah Carey's "Hero."

"I'm a movie star now," joked McAuley as TV crews moved in to interview both "mature" graduates.

Asked whether she felt she had received her diploma prematurely, given that Klarman had to wait till 91, McAuley laughed, showing no competitiveness.

"She's remarkable!" McAuley gushed. "She still bowls!" (And scored a recent 191, according to Klarman's family.)

Then McAuley turned reflective.

"You do what you have to do," she recalled of the time she quit. "My father needed me in the grocery store, so I went. I really teared up when the graduates started to march in."

Klarman, asked earlier how she had felt when her family surprised her by telling her she had an appointment with a diploma on June 18, said: "I got hysterical. I laughed, and I cried. I was so happy. I said, 'Here's my dream coming true.' " Leaving school, she added, "really broke my heart."

When the moment came to honor the two, the Class of 2009 gave them rousing applause. Principal Vera L. White began by asking the graduates to "listen carefully" to Klarman's mini-biography.

"Marion Goldsmith Klarman was born on Dec. 11, 1917 to immigrant parents," White started, the word immigrant triggering its own round of applause.

Klarman, one of six children, earned only 35 cents an hour for the work that required her to leave in 1934, but "her family used it for necessities." The lack of a high school diploma, White said, "always stuck in her craw." Now "her high school" had made things right.

The honoring of McAuley, which followed immediately, minced no words in acknowledging that "she still remembers the humiliation of telling teachers that she was leaving school despite her good grades" to help her father in his Wayne Avenue grocery in 1941.

That biography left out one detail that made her experience especially poignant.

"She was the middle of five girls," explained her husband of 63 years, Andrew. "Her father wanted someone to work in the store. The oldest went to be a hairdresser. The next-oldest became a secretary. And the other two were too young. So he took her to work in the store.

"They all graduated, and she didn't. She always said how she hated not having it. She felt cheated."

Both families agreed with Janicz, McAuley's daughter, that White and Gratz guidance counselor Beverly Tedesco had been "marvelous" when the families contacted the school separately (and coincidentally only a short time apart) with the idea of belated diplomas.

Asked after the ceremony whether that was an easy call, White replied: "Extremely. We were delighted to be able to make them a part of our ceremony. This is inspiration for the other students that graduated. They can see that there's no end to the time frame in which you can graduate from high school or receive any type of degree."

White said she was so pleased with the enthusiasm regular Gratz grads showed for their elder peers - many rushed up to Klarman and McAuley to take photos with them - that she planned "to make this a part of our graduate process from now on."

When the ceremony closed, McAuley, bidding goodbye to Klarman, kept to the spirit of the occasion and offered some free advice.

"Don't let it go to your head," she quipped.

Contact staff writer Carlin Romano
at 215-854-5615 or cromano@phillynews.com.