At 72, St. Petersburg man finally reaches his dream: graduation

Jesten Culbreth, Quentin Hicks and Brian Mills sit together for the Second Chance Education Recognition Program at Christ Gospel Church on Saturday. Relatives came from across the country to see Culbreth, 72, receive his GED.

LARA CERRI | Times

Jesten Culbreth, Quentin Hicks and Brian Mills sit together for the Second Chance Education Recognition Program at Christ Gospel Church on Saturday. Relatives came from across the country to see Culbreth, 72, receive his GED.

ST. PETERSBURG

At the moment he received his GED on Saturday, Jesten Culbreth couldn't hold back his emotions.

The 72-year-old had waited decades for this.

As a child in Georgia, Culbreth was allowed to go to school only when it rained. The other days he was expected to work on the family farm. He dropped out of school after seventh grade, not sure if he'd ever have a graduation ceremony.

His moment came on Saturday. Clad in a blue cap and gown, he marched to "Pomp and Circumstance" down the center aisle at Christ Gospel Church.

"I tried to hold myself together but the tears wouldn't stop coming," Culbreth said.

It was the end of a long journey for Culbreth, who moved to Florida in 1959.

At that time, he was hoping for a new start and a chance to go to school again.

Life got in the way.

He and his wife, Nancy, who will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary next month, raised six children. The couple emphasized education, making sure all of their children graduated from high school. Many of them, as well as the grandchildren, have achieved advanced degrees.

Culbreth always worked at least two jobs to support his family. He spent more than 40 years in the construction industry, retiring from Cox Lumber Co. a few years ago when the economy tanked.

He was good at math, and worked his way from building trusses to foreman to draftsman.

He never stopped thinking about school, though.

"I held onto that," Culbreth said. "That was always my dream."

Achieving that dream became more urgent a few months ago, when Culbreth set out to find work again. Hoping to supplement his income so he didn't have to rely solely on his Social Security, Culbreth applied everywhere from home improvement stores to grocery chains.

They all told him the same thing: without a high school diploma, he wouldn't be hired.

"It just crushed him," said Victoria Cribb, his youngest daughter.

Cribb suggested Culbreth attend Second Chance Education, a Pinellas County organization that helps people finish high school.

Culbreth completed his final test earlier this month.

He received special recognition during Saturday's program, which included a keynote address by his son-in-law, the Rev. Desmond Cribb. Eight others also got their diplomas.

"Graduates, today you are no longer just another statistic … and it's about time," the minister said. "Today the nine of you seated here have already proved your critics wrong."

The reverend said it was now the graduates' responsibility to inspire others.

By day's end, it seemed to be working.

As the family prepared to take Culbreth out to his favorite restaurant, his 47-year-old daughter Wonda announced she plans to return to college. She plans to study nursing.

"If he can do it, I can do it," she said.

Times photographer Lara Cerri contributed to this story. Kameel Stanley can be reached at kstanley@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8643.

At 72, St. Petersburg man finally reaches his dream: graduation 01/22/11 [Last modified: Saturday, January 22, 2011 9:36pm]

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