MASSILLON-- You could call him the most popular guy in school, but students were shocked when they first met James Grammer.
“At first I thought he was maybe just a teacher,” said 19-year-old Patricia Icenhower. “Then, I’d seen him and realized he was a student, and I was just like, ‘Wow!’”
Grammer, 86, made quite an impression since he started Massillon’s Adult Basic Literacy Education program a year ago.
“I’ve had to learn a lot that I didn’t know,” Grammer said. “I learned a lot in life, but not as far as schoolwork was concerned.”
Grammer quit school when he was in ninth grade, so he could go to work to help support his parents and six siblings.
Not long after, in 1945, he was drafted into the Army during World War II. He was sent to the Philippines.
“It was a place you were drafted into but you don’t want to go. It wasn’t the best place in the world at that time,” he said.
Grammer spent two years overseas and was one of seven soldiers selected for a special medical program.
“It taught me how to be a man,” he said. “It teaches you discipline for one thing. It teaches you responsibility. It teaches you to set your goal and plan what you want to do.”
When he returned to the United States, Grammer decided to build a life in the Akron area, which is where he was drafted.
He married, had two children and worked most of his life as an electrician. He never gave school a second thought.
“I was married. I had two kids,” he said. “Going to school was the furthest thing from my mind. Jobs were plentiful. Pay was good. You didn’t need a high school diploma.”
Yet, this past year, Grammer surprised many by hitting the books.
“I’ve got a grandson and a great-granddaughter that didn’t get their diplomas from high school and I thought I might inspire them to go back to school or come here and get their GED,” he said.
Grammer’s persistence didn’t work as planned, but he has motivated 21-year-old David Dexter.
“This is my fourth time taking the GED,” Dexter, a fellow student, said. “James has inspired me to really get it. Math is really giving me trouble, but he’s older. I’m going to keep fighting the good fight until I can finally pass, be able to graduate and throw my cap up in the air.”
Certainly James has learned a lot at school.
After all, it’s been about 70 years since he’s been inside a classroom, but between the math and English lessons, there’s one thing – and more importantly, one person – who surprised him.
“When I met him, I tutored him in math and we just kind of hooked up and became very good friends,” said Anna Nussbaumer.
They met during the past year, and realize they had a lot in common.
Nussbaumer, 66, had completed her GED during her 50s. Also, the two of them had lost their spouses in recent year.
“She was after me since day one,” Grammer said smiling. “I was surprised. It kind of rejuvenates your life a little bit to have somebody that cares about you and you care about them. It just like a shot in the arm. I didn’t see it coming.”
Now, the community is also sharing its love for Grammer with a special ceremony. The Veteran’s Administration and the Massillon school board presented Grammer with an honorary high school diploma Wednesday night.
“We learn more from him than any history book,” said Vickie Whiting, the school coordinator for the ABLE program. “We do really do capitalize on his knowledge and expertise. My wish for everybody is to have a James Grammer in their classroom.”
Grammer said he’s taken back by the honor but still plans to complete his GED. He expects to earn his certificate this spring.
He said it’s never too late to pursue your dream.
“Every citizen should learn a new thing every day of their life, no matter if it’s good or bad because it all fits together,” he said. “Go back to school and study as much as you can because you’re going to need it.”