A birthday, a mission and lifelong learning
by By DAVID ATCHISON
David Atchison/The Daily Home

GED teacher Gayle Wood helps Ernest Smith with a lesson.
Some people could look at him as sort of a teacher’s pet, others the jokester of the class, for some he’s a true inspiration, but all the 90-year-old student really wants is to earn his GED.

“That’s my goal,” said Ernest Smith of Pell City, who was celebrating his 90th birthday with his teachers and fellow students during his GED class at Jefferson State Community College in Pell City.

He may be the oldest living student in Alabama, certainly around these parts.

“I presume I must be (the oldest),” said Smith, who was born a long, long time ago, 1922 to be exact.

And Smith was all smiles when he was recently showered with birthday gifts and a cake at his GED class.

Current and past teachers surrounded their “favorite” student as he reached into the large gift bag full of goodies they presented.

He almost didn’t make it to class that night and could have missed out on his big surprise Birthday party.

No he wasn’t planning on skipping class, but he did have car problems. His wife, Dena, made sure he made the special occasion and Smith arrived on time and ready to learn – and to celebrate 90 years of living.

“My teachers are out of this world,” said the World War II veteran, who was wounded in the European Theater during the war of all wars.

His teachers have a mutual respect and admiration for their “oldest” student as well.

“I tell my kids about Mr. Smith all the time,” said Donna Hyche, a Williams Intermediate School teacher who helped Smith with his math before she retired from teaching general education diploma classes.

Hyche said anytime one of her students doesn’t want to study or try, she talks about her 90-year-old student who puts everything he has, physically and mentally, to learn new things so he can reach his goal.

She made a special visit to the GED class to celebrate her former student’s birthday.

“I miss him,” Hyche said.

From the gift bag, Smith pulled out a package of handkerchiefs, then a black umbrella for those stormy, rainy days.

Smith reached into the bag again and pulled out a shinny, brown wallet.

“Who gave me this?” he said.

“They could have kept this – you need money for this.”

Everyone laughed.

“This is lovely,” Smith said as he opened the billfold. “I have my credit card department here. I’ll put this to good use.”

Mollie Spraberry, a Pell City High School business teacher who also teaches GED classes, said Smith is one of about 25 students enrolled in the GED program at Jefferson State Community College, Pell City campus.

She said they see about 9-12 students each night, Monday through Thursday.

Spraberry said they have GED classes non-stop from 8 a.m.-7:30 p.m.

“It’s free,” said Smith, who retired from the commercial photography business.

Smith began taking GED classes shortly after he and his wife moved to Pell City from Winston Salem, N.C..

“My wife is from here,” he said.

He started taking GED classes about three years ago.

“It’s been a very interesting venture,” Smith said.

Smith said he just didn’t have time for school when he was younger.

“I had an early start with a family,” he said. “I had to give up school.”

And then there was World War II.

He said youngsters need to embrace learning - education.

“They need to stay in school,” Smith said. “Education is the most important thing they can be involved with.”

Smith said the GED program was a good way to meet people and make new friends but make no mistake - he wants to earn his GED.

Smith was urged to open his billfold and when he finally did his smile grew.

“Oh!” Smith said, holding up the $100 bill for everyone to see.

After the party and all the fanfare and cake, Smith went back to work – studying, writing and learning.

He is a 90-year-old man on a mission.

“My only reason for being here is to get a GED,” Smith said. “I hope to get a GED, if I don’t die first.”

Contact David Atchison at datchison@dailyhome.com.
© 2012