Bourgeault to receive diploma 63 years after leaving school

MIDDLEBURY — By her own count, Betty (McCormick) Bourgeault has attended 27 graduation ceremonies during her 81 years. It comes with the territory when you are a senior member of a large and loving family.

But the 28th graduation ceremony that Bourgeault will attend on June 8 will be extra special — because it will be her own. The former Middlebury resident a week from Saturday will finally receive the Middlebury Union High School diploma that has eluded her since 1949, when tough family circumstances forced her to end her scholastic career as a junior at Middlebury High School.

“It makes my life complete,” Bourgeault said of the diploma during a phone interview at her current home in Antrim, N.H.

“All of my life, I have regretted not graduating from high school.”

Bourgeault recalled enjoying school immensely as a teen. She was a member of the Middlebury High School varsity basketball team, cheerleading squad and band.

But cold reality would always hit her when she got home to what she described as a challenging family life marked by tight finances. They lived on a farm. Her dad was a good mechanic but unreliable in supporting the family of 12 kids. There were no school buses in those days and Bourgeault could not be assured of getting to and from classes. So she reluctantly quit school after her junior year in 1949 to take a babysitting job.

Things started looking up in 1950, when she met her eventual husband, Joe, who was then manager of a coffee shop operating in the Middlebury Inn. They soon married and had the first of their seven children at Porter Hospital in 1951.

The growing family would move to Lowell, Mass., before settling in New Hampshire around 40 years ago. Joe would enjoy a successful career in the Merchant Marines, while Betty tended the home front. After the last of their children graduated from high school — and Betty swore to herself that every one of them would — she started her own wallpapering and painting business. Her beloved husband died around 20 years ago.

Betty Bourgeault’s life has been marked with a lot of love and excitement, but failing to earn a high school diploma had always bothered her. Only two of her siblings had accomplished the feat. She was thrilled to see her own children graduate from high school, with some also going on to college. She has 16 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren whom she expects will also sport a cap and gown someday.

And her day will come, thanks to her family, which reached out to Addison Central Supervisory Union Superintendent Gail Conley about allowing Bourgeault to realize her lifelong dream. He agreed to allow Bourgeault to sit with administrators on stage during the commencement exercises and receive a diploma in a special ceremony.

“I was impressed by (Bourgeault’s) family’s commitment to education and by her own commitment to education,” Conley said. “I felt (the diploma) was a more than reasonable request.”

Bourgeault learned the news just two weeks ago.

“I started to cry, and I cried for three days,” Bourgeault said of her reaction. “It hit me like a bomb.”

She’s excited to return to Middlebury for the event, but she may need a tour guide to navigate her through her former hometown.

During the many years she’s been away, Middlebury High School was substantially burned in a fire and is now home to the municipal offices. Of course there is now a Middlebury Union High School and separate middle school, neither of which Bourgeault has seen. She might get to the ceremony via the new Cross Street Bridge, a mere fantasy when she bid farewell to Middlebury six decades ago.

Three generations of Bourgeaults will attend Betty’s graduation, and a few tears will undoubtedly be shed.

“It’s gong to be a happy day,” she said.

And some gentle teasing has already begun.

“My kids told me, ‘When you get that diploma, you’re going to have to get a job,’” Bourgeault said with a chuckle. “I said, ‘You have to be kidding me, I retired 20 years ago.’”

Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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