Boston Globe
Dream harvested
Decades after Depression, a farmer gets his diploma
By Suzanne Sataline, Globe Correspondent | May 27, 2004
John Marion, 87, celebrates his Woburn High diploma yesterday with "classmates" including Chrissy Bigelow, left, and Krystal Burgos outside New Horizons at Choate retirement home. (Globe Staff Photo / Essdras M. Suarez)
WOBURN -- 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 the truck."

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 an A."

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 home.

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.

"John," Norton 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.

"I'm proud," he said, "to be a Tanner."