As It Happens

His high school diploma was withheld over a library fee. 60 years later, he finally got it

When a California high school's graduating class walked across the stage to get their diplomas last month, one student stood out from the crowd — 78-year-old Ted Sams.

'I never thought I'd ever walk that stage,' says 78-year-old Ted Sams of California

An elderly man with gray hair in a blue graduation gown and a pink lei around his neck stands with his arm around a smiling woman with long, dark brown hair, cat-eye glasses and a floral summery dress. They are outside at a stadium. Far behind them are dozens of other high school graduates in blue gowns on lawn chairs.
Veronica Molina, right, pictured with with Ted Sams at high school graduation ceremony at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., on May 27, 2022. Molina, a staffer at San Gabriel High School, found Sams' 1962 diploma, and joined him when he finally received it. (Alhambra Unified School District)

Story Transcript

When a California high school's graduating class walked across the stage to get their diplomas last month, one student stood out from the crowd — 78-year-old Ted Sams.

The San Gabriel, Calif., man technically graduated in 1962, but some teenage hijinks and an overdue library book prevented him from getting his diploma. It's something he's always regretted.

"I didn't expect to be up there 60 years later," Sams told As It Happens guest host Tom Harrington. "In fact, I never thought I'd ever walk that stage after I walked away from getting my diploma way back in 1962. So it was really exciting."

On May 27, Sams joined the 2022 graduating class of San Gabriel High in California at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, where he finally received his diploma to raucous applause, as his daughters watched through tears. 

His story was first reported by the Pasadena Star-News.

A suspension and an overdue book

Sams was supposed to graduate with his own class at San Gabriel High in 1962 — but then he got himself into some trouble. 

"It was the dog days of our senior year and [we were] just bored stiff," he said.

Five days before his graduation ceremony, Sams says he and his buddy were goofing around during a photography class. After the vice-principal caught them taking photos of people who didn't want their photos taken, they were suspended — even though Sams says they didn't have any film in their cameras. 

He ended up missing a final exam and graduation day, and had to make up for it in summer school. When he finally finished the class, he went to pick up his diploma, but they wouldn't give it to him until he paid the $4.80 US he owed for a library book he'd never returned.

An elderly man with gray hair, sporting a blue graduation cap and gown, stands in line outside between two teenage girls, also wearing blue graduation caps and gowns.
Ted Sams, 78, stands in line between two 2022 high school graduates during his long overdue commencement ceremony at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., on May 27, 20220. (Alhambra Unified School District)

"I just said, forget it, and I walked away," Sams said. "And, you know, $4.80 was a lot of money in those days for a working kid."

With that kind of cash, Sams says he could have taken his girlfriend out to the movies and filled up his car with gas. 

Still, he says he always felt that "a little bit of [his] life was missing" because he didn't have a diploma and never had a proper graduation ceremony. 

Making it happen

It's a story he told his children many times over the years — until one of his daughters, Sherry Sams, decided to rectify the situation, so she called the school to find her dad's long lost diploma.

Toby Gilbert, spokesperson for the Alhambra Unified School District, says a sympathetic school staffer named Veronica Molina helped track it down.

"After telling Sherry how to make a records request for the 1962 diploma, Veronica could not stop thinking about the conversation. She remembered her own grandfather talking about wanting his high school diploma," Gilbert said in an email.

"Veronica went into a vault, not knowing what to look for. Hidden in a corner was a dusty box labelled 'old diplomas.' It looked like the box had never been opened. Inside was ... Sams' original 1962 high school diploma. Veronica ran to tell me." 

An elderly man in a blue graduation cap and gown smiles and waves to the camera as he sits among a group of teenaged high school graduates on the grass at the centre of a stadium.
Ted Sams waves as he sits with the 2022 graduating class of San Gabriel High at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. (Alhambra Unified School District)

The school board decided that Sams should get the cap-and-gown ceremony he'd missed all those years ago. Gilbert was the one to call the family and tell them the good news. 

"There were lots of happy tears on that call," she said.

Sherry Sams surprised her dad with the news in a video call, which she posted on YouTube.

"I'm dying to go," he says in the video as he dabbed the tears from his eyes and recited his high school's mantra from memory. 

Watch: Ted Sams learns he's going to get his diploma:

Sherry Sams says she felt elated watching her dad walk across the stage. The whole stadium, she says, paused to celebrate the moment. 

"We were so joyful that day," she said. "All the students graduating with him started clapping."

Her father, meanwhile, says he's looking forward to framing the diploma and displaying it on his wall.

As for the library fee? Ted Sams never paid it back — though he did consider it. 

"I sat down one day to calculate the interest at three per cent simple interest for 60 years," Sams said. "But I gave up after calculating up to about 30 years."

(Using an online inflation calculator, CBC calculated that $4.80 would be $45.95 US today, or $57.85 Cdn. Still enough for a pair of movie tickets — but maybe not a full tank of gas.) 

"I was going to pay it all back. But then I thought, no, they kept it for $4.80. I'm not going to pay that back," Sams said. "They never asked me for it either."

Written by Aloysius Wong and Sheena Goodyear. Interview with Ted Sams produced by Aloysius Wong.

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