80 years later, woman gets wish to join class of 1938

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Ruth Frezza raised three children and has five grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. On Sunday afternoon, she had another wish — that she had graduated from high school.

Time was of the essence after Frezza expressed interest in finally getting her diploma after dropping out in 1936. It was some eight decades since that she, the oldest of six siblings and a sophomore, had left Lake Shore High School in St. Clair Shores to help her mother raise the younger children.

On Sunday, Frezza, 98, had her high school graduation — at the nursing home in Mount Clemens where she lives. At 2:20 p.m., Kim Becker, Frezza’s granddaughter, kicked off the ceremony at the Martha T. Berry Medical Center by playing “Pomp & Circumstance” on her violin.

“I am thrilled to welcome you as the newest alumni of Lake Shore High School,” said Joe DiPonio, Lake Shore Public Schools superintendent, on Sunday at the brief ceremony. “You are all we could possibly hope for as a member of our student body.”

Frezza, characteristically, had little to say, but smiled during the entire ceremony. Afterward, dozens of family members and school board members took turns getting photos with the new alumna. In addition to DiPonio, school board President Shannon Ketelhut, Vice President Sharon Bartl, Treasurer Susan DeLong and trustees Elizabeth Munger and Daniel Colling attended the ceremony.

“I’m all mixed up,” Frezza said afterward. “I’m so happy.”

The quest to see their mother and grandmother graduate began after Frezza’s surprise request to her family. That’s when the homework began in earnest.

“My mom was just real chatty that day, and started talking about things from her past, and about how she quit school to take care of her siblings before her mom went to work, and I’d never heard that before,” said Ruth’s daughter, Eileen Kuha. “I mentioned to my daughter Niki, and Niki took the ball and ran with it.”

Niki Posner reached out on Facebook to see if there were any connections to the Lake Shore administration.

“She’s not one to talk about the past a whole lot, so I was surprised she was bringing up all this old stuff,” Kuha said. “I didn’t even know she grew up in St. Clair Shores. I didn’t know she went to Lake Shore High School. I didn’t know any of that.”

DiPonio, after hearing Frezza’s story, decided she would be retroactively added to the class of 1938, 80 years later.

“She had five siblings, and her parents needed the help, so she kind of took one for the team there,” DiPonio said.

The family had sought only a symbolic version of what took place Sunday: a printed diploma and a nice moment to remember. DiPonio decided to officially add Frezza to the class of 1938.

“We had talked about doing this as a school assembly, and doing it in front of our student body,” DiPonio said of the initial plan for the graduation ceremony.

But in consultation with the family, he brought the ceremony to the Mount Clemens facility.

The name on the diploma is Ruth Osterman, the name she was known by at Lake Shore High. A picture of Frezza from her younger days stood next to the celebratory cake.

“From her perspective, I can’t even imagine the changes she’s seen, throughout the world, and certainly in our community and at Lake Shore,” DiPonio said.

DiPonio said that if a student today were in Frezza’s situation, they’d have more options.

“Technology can really assist in situations where kids’ time is really torn,” DiPonio said. “Nowadays, we’ll provide every support to make sure a student gets their diploma, including online classes and evening opportunities.”