-- He was resplendent in a black robe and
mortarboard, an old farmer with a back crooked
from years stooped over lettuce plants.
John Marion, surrounded by well-wishers
at New Horizons at Choate
retirement home, became a high school
graduate yesterday at age 87.
The Depression cut short
his first attempt at a high school diploma.
The kindness of a Woburn high school student
waiting tables at his retirement home
led to Marion finally getting his diploma.
Marion grew up in Woburn,
raised by parents who were among the last
of the city's greenhouse-lettuce growers
on Route 3. The eldest of five boys and
two girls, Marion spent weekends and afternoons
harvesting with his siblings. His father
and the field hands instructed him on
how to pull lettuce from the soil when
he was still a toddler. By the time he
was in school, growing seasons marked
the months. In the winter and spring,
they boxed lettuce; during the summer,
they harvested cucumbers, then tomatoes.
"I was three-quarters
on the farm and one-quarter in school,"
he likes to say.
When the Depression began,
farmers nearby began losing their land
to banks and larger farms. The Marion
family hung on, selling the large-headed
Bell May lettuce crossbred by the Wymans
in Arlington. But by 1934, the father
needed help and asked his oldest son,
a high school junior, to leave school
to help out full time. Marion was fond
of history class, but he agreed.
He wasn't angry or regretful.
"I'd been on the farm all of my life,"
he said. "I had a good time driving
Each day Marion drove
the unheated Walker Johnson truck to Quincy
Market, delivering the produce for sale.
Each afternoon he watered row after row
of plants, helping his family stay one
step ahead of the creditors. He stayed
on the farm long after his brothers and
sisters enlisted in the war effort. Marion
-- unmarried and without children -- sold
the farm in 1970.
He took a job supervising
a local Christmas tree farm for 15 years.
In 1995, he moved to New Horizons, where
he lives independently but gets help with
meals and transportation. He soon began
gardening on the grounds. Every day, residents
saw the barrel-chested man with the neatly
combed gray hair tending to his tomato
plants. Management built raised beds,
allowing Marion and other seniors to plant
and till without stooping over.
At New Horizons, he started
studying again, enrolling in Spanish class,
an activity that helped him get to know
Krystal Burgos, a student at Woburn High
School. As a freshman, she started working
at New Horizons after school, serving
dinner three nights a week.
Learning the teen's parents
were Puerto Rican, Marion would usher
her over and try out sentences in Spanish.
"He'd talk about
anything. He'd talk about tomatoes,"
said Burgos, 17. She tended to his dining
needs. He's not supposed to have much
fat or sugar, she said, so he asks for
a teaspoon of those things.
Last year, Burgos read
John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath"
for English class and her teacher assigned
students to conduct an oral history with
someone who lived during the Depression.
Burgos thought of Marion instantly.
"John loves to talk,"
she remembers thinking. "I'll get
In the following weeks,
Burgos and the other students who work
at New Horizons learned about Marion's
life and that he never finished high school.
Burgos decided to give something back
to the elderly man. She asked high school
principal Robert Norton if Marion could
graduate with the rest of the seniors.
Norton initially declined, but changed
his mind. He and the staff decided to
award him an honorary diploma at a special
graduation ceremony at the retirement
Yesterday, Marion sat
in his black cap and gown alongside the
five young women, including Burgos, dressed
in white graduation robes. Resident Helen
Deyst picked out "Pomp and Circumstance"
on the piano.
remembered saying, "we give credit
at Woburn High School for work study,
and 40 years of working at the Marion
Farm qualifies you for sufficient life
credits to graduate."
Norton presented Marion
with an actual diploma, not an honorary
one, just as the school has done for the
World War II soldiers who left before
graduating. The crowd gasped. "I
got teary-eyed," Burgos said.
Marion stared wide-eyed,
Norton said. Then, the old farmer remembered
the school mascot as he gave thanks.
he said, "to be a Tanner."