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"Surprise! Happy Graduation! We love you!" 

Cheers and applause rang out at the 600 block of East Sunset Avenue on Saturday afternoon, where 83-year-old Joan Wiley was wheeled out the ramp to the front yard of her house; her jaw dropped at the sight of her entire family who came together to celebrate her high school graduation and present her with the diploma she never got to receive, 65 years later.

Wiley, decked out in a shining, bright red cap and gown, complete with a flower lei to match, grasped a handkerchief to wipe her eyes with in one hand and her William Rainey Harper High School diploma in the other. 

Unbeknownst to her, Joan Wiley, 83, joined William Rainey Harper High School's class of 2016 graduates, a secret plan that her children carried out after learning that their mother still felt hurt after all these years at the fact that she was barred from attending her own high school graduation back in 1951, in the West Englewood neighborhood on the south side of Chicago. 

"My mom, Joan, was scheduled to graduate with her class in 1951, and before the ceremonies, she went to the principal and told him she was getting married," said Bill Wiley. "Then, six weeks before graduation, they didn't allow her to walk." 

It was a story that the family knew about for years, but never quite fully understood what it meant for Joan Wiley to not walk with her classmates. 

Wiley's husband was enlisted in the U.S. Navy, in the middle of the Korean War. The couple quickly got married due to the fact that her husband's relocation outcomes were up in the air. 

"He ended up not getting shipped out, but they didn't know that at the time," said Joan's sister, Lynne Gehrke. "This was why they quickly got married before she graduated." 

Wiley moved on with her life after high school and marriage; she had seven children, relocated from Chicago to Santa Maria in 1968 and has been residing on the Central Coast since. All seven of her children are Santa Maria High School alumni. 

During Joan's 83rd birthday party in April, her sisters finally understood what it meant for Joan to be able to receive her high school diploma, something that the family always knew about but didn't fully comprehend, until Joan finally voiced her thoughts.

That's when niece Meghan Csoke, who teaches in Calumet City in Chicago, went into action to get her hands on a diploma for Joan. 

Csoke reached out to the high school, filled out an online form at the school's website, not really expecting anything out of it. 

"It was then a day later, I got an email from the school registrar, and they told me they were on it," said Csoke. "We were so surprised. I explained to her what it meant for the family, for Joan, and that it was a lifelong dream of hers." 

After numerous email exchanges and helpful staffers who accommodated the family's request, Harper High School invited them to attend the class of 2016 graduation ceremony at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago on June 14.

Everyone was able to keep the entire plan a secret for the last few months until the surprise graduation party planned for July 30, said Csoke.

"The Harper graduation ceremony was wonderful — everyone welcomed us with open arms, we got to sit and walk the stage with the graduates," she said.

The family hosted an intimate barbecue at Wiley's home in the northern part of Santa Maria. Family members from Illinois, Massachusetts and up and down the Central Coast gathered together to celebrate Joan's academic accomplishments more than six decades later. All were decked out in Harper High School's colors, red and white. 

Joan Wiley, still alert and bright, full of snappy comebacks and a quick wit, was unspeakably surprised and very emotional at the fact that she had the majority of her family altogether, for the first time since her husband passed on. 

"I'm overwhelmed," she said, blowing her nose into her handkerchief. "I didn't expect this — never thought I'd have everyone here together. My family likes to do weird things, but I love it when they do these weird things together." 

Joan said she remembered her times at Harper High School as a wonderful experience, something that she's cherished over the last 65 years. She was very active in school extracurricular activities, had immense academic success, was the expected valedictorian of her class, a member of the National Honors Society and was an editor of her high school newspaper, the Harper Highway.

"I really enjoyed it," Wiley remembered. "Sixty-five years, huh?"

"Miracles do happen," she said as she blew her nose and gazed at her diploma. "Better late than never." 

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Gina Kim covers crime and courts for Santa Maria Times. Follow her on Twitter @gina_k210


Courts/Public Safety Reporter