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77-year-old completes high school education

Dan Bly and his mother,  Gloria Tofte, talk this week at her home  about her upcoming speech at the Institute for Extended Learning's  commencement. Pregnant with her son, Tofte dropped out of school before graduating with North Central High School's Class of 1949. 
 (Photos by Rajah Bose / The Spokesman-Review)
Dan Bly and his mother, Gloria Tofte, talk this week at her home about her upcoming speech at the Institute for Extended Learning's commencement. Pregnant with her son, Tofte dropped out of school before graduating with North Central High School's Class of 1949. (Photos by Rajah Bose / The Spokesman-Review)

Undoubtedly, there will be other parents among the students who accept diplomas the night Gloria Tofte speaks at her own commencement ceremony.

After all, the people who earn their high school certificates through the Institute for Extended Learning often are adults whose educations were derailed earlier in life.

But it’s unlikely that any others in the graduating class Wednesday will have three children, nine grandchildren, 12 great-grandchildren, a pacemaker and hearing aids.

“And I don’t walk very well,” Tofte said. “Actually, for my age, I’m doing pretty well.”

Certainly none of those other graduates will receive a diploma from their own son.

Tofte’s son, Dan Bly, will retire soon as district director of Head Start for the Community Colleges of Spokane, which also operates the Institute for Extended Learning. Since 1974, he has helped make sure kids get a good start on their education. In the process, he helps their parents – often single mothers, sometimes as young as 14 – get a chance to complete their own schooling.

Tofte’s family places a high value on education. So it has always grated on her that she didn’t get a chance to graduate with North Central High School’s Class of ‘49.

“I loved school, and I was good at it, too,” said Tofte, 77. “I just goofed up, and I couldn’t go back. I just couldn’t.”

She wore a big smile in the yearbook for 1947, when she was a sophomore. A pressed corsage of pink roses – a memento from the prom – is tucked in its pages.

“Here’s wishing one of (the) most wonderful and cutest girls I have ever known a wonderful future,” a friend wrote in that copy of the Tamarack.

Tofte, whose maiden name was Gloria Elston, enjoyed her sophomore and junior years, and she was excited to return as a senior. She’d be joining the cheerleading squad, and she had a good-looking steady who attended West Valley High School.

But it seemed she was always nauseated that summer.

“To be honest with you,” she said, “I didn’t know I was pregnant. I didn’t hardly know how you got that way.

“It was my dad who figured it out.”

Pregnant teens were not uncommon in the early years of America’s baby boom. In fact, the birth rate among teens was much higher in 1950 than it is today, according to statistics kept by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But nearly 90 percent of the teens who gave birth in 1950 were married, compared with about 20 percent today.

Tofte’s parents were heartbroken but supportive. It was, however, a mistake that they insisted the young couple stand before a preacher.

“We didn’t know anything about being married,” she said. “We were 17.”

Out of shame, Tofte broke off contact with nearly all her friends. But word got around; her little sister lost a friend whose mother said the girl should no longer associate with the Elstons.

Danny was born in December 1948, and the young family moved into a shabby apartment above the Spokane Armory, where high school basketball games were played.

“I can remember sitting in that window with my baby and watching all my friends going into the games,” she said. “I’d sit and cry.”

Sometimes she’d go for walks downtown, pushing a stroller. And sometimes on those walks she’d see a classmate from North Central coming toward her on the sidewalk. Tofte would cross the street and hope she hadn’t been noticed.

Her dad stopped to check on her most days, and he insisted the family move after a police officer said that the woman down the hall was a prostitute. The new apartment was better, but life didn’t improve. Ill-prepared for marriage and fatherhood, Tofte’s husband often failed to come home, or he came home angry. Once, he broke her arm.

The marriage lasted a year, and he went off to serve in the Navy.

Tofte’s parents both worked, and they helped her as much as they could, and a friend got her a part-time job at an insurance company. Over the next several decades, she’d turn that into a career, going from clerk to underwriter to licensed agent. She lied to bosses who asked about her education. Lately, she’s received graduation cards from some of those same former bosses.

Tofte eventually remarried, to a man who had been in her class at NC. Jay Bly adopted Danny, and the family grew by two more children, Robert and Kathy.

“He was a good, good man,” Tofte said. “He was a wonderful father to my children, except he didn’t want any more. I would have had 20.”

They eventually divorced but have stayed in touch. Tofte married a third time, to Otis Tofte, who died of cancer in 1995.

Now she lives on the South Hill, and from time to time her children tell her she needs to exercise, both her mind and her body.

So a while back, mostly to quiet him, Tofte told her oldest son she thought maybe she’d go back to school.

“He said, ‘Oh, Mom, that’d be so neat.’ I really didn’t think he’d say that.”

Although she’d missed an entire year of school, Tofte needed only one class to meet graduation requirements: U.S. history. She attended four nights a week.

“Danny typed up all my lessons for me.”

The class was difficult, even though the instructor told her she could skip sections of the textbook dealing with the second half of the 20th century, seeing as how she’d lived through the Cold War and Watergate. She learned things she hadn’t known about the American Revolution, the Declaration of Independence and Christopher Columbus.

Tofte acknowledges being initially skeptical about her young classmates. Some of them showed up with dirty hair and smelling badly. She cringed when an inmate with an electronic ankle bracelet took the desk next to hers at the Adult Education Center, 2310 N. Monroe St.

They were skeptical of her, too.

“The first day, there were a lot of heads that turned,” said Tofte. “But they were so darned nice to me. They were darling kids.”

Tofte doesn’t plan to go to college. And she still wishes she were receiving a diploma in North Central’s red and black, even if it did say 2008 instead of 1949.

But she’s proud of her accomplishment, and she plans to tell her fellow graduates that “your education is the most important thing you can do for yourself.”

Completing an education is easier for a girl who gets pregnant today. Alternative schools, in-school nurseries, GED programs, the Institute for Extended Learning – all are new or greatly expanded since Tofte was a teen.

But there are new perils for such teens, including AIDS and drug abuse, noted Dan Bly, the son who was conceived out of wedlock and has spent his career helping kids in similar circumstances.

“Children raising children is still tough, whether it’s ‘48 or 2008,” he said. “It’s a scary place out there for kids.”

Not that it’s impossible.

“Mom is a great example that people can achieve everything.”

If you go

What: The Institute for Extended Learning commencement.

When: 6 p.m. Wednesday.

Where: Walter S. Johnson Sports Center on the campus of Spokane Community College.

Notable: This year, the program has 270 graduates with GEDs and 26 with high school completion certificates.