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At 76, Park Rapids resident hits textbooks after 60-year hiatus

Mary Rittenhouse, 76, shows off her diploma that she received one week ago. "Everybody is so happy for me," she said. (Riham Feshir / Enterprise)

Mary Rittenhouse sat in her apartment Wednesday afternoon surrounded by flowers, balloons and a pile of photocopied textbooks.

The 76-year-old Park Rapids resident just received her GED certificate last Friday, after one and a half years of hard work.

"I kept telling my teacher 'you're burning my brain,'" she said. "It's a great satisfaction to know that I had done it at this age."

Rittenhouse quit high school as a junior because her father didn't think it was necessary for her to attend school.

"My father didn't think girls needed an education," she said. "He'd complain about every little bit of money you had to spend." Rittenhouse is originally from Illinois, where she got married at 18.

In the 1950s, she began working at jobs that didn't require an education. She learned how to sew to make gloves or coats at different factories.

Every time Rittenhouse would think about going back to school, life would just get in the way.

"This happened and that happened, I just didn't get back to doing it."

She went through a divorce, then married her second husband who had Meniere's Syndrome and required extra care.

"When my kids were teenagers, I thought well I can do it then, but I had to take care of him all of the time," she said.

Rittenhouse has three children. One of them is dyslexic and also needed special attention as a kid.

"I did more than what the teachers did," she said referring to how much she helped her daughter with her homework every night.

How she did it

One of her daughters called her one day and suggested she would go back to school.

"She said 'mom, why don't you do it now, you have nothing to do,'" Rittenhouse said.

She attended Adult Basic Education classes at the Park Rapids Community Education two to three times per week.

And after she was done volunteering with Lutheran Social Services at the River Heights Apartments every day - serving senior meals and cleaning - she would study until she felt ready to take the test.

She was required to take one test on each subject: English literature, writing, mathematics, science and history.

"It was hard," she said.

She found the multiple-choice questions tricky and some things were difficult to remember.

"As I'm older, things don't stay in my mind as good as they did when I was younger," Rittenhouse said. "I'd read over and over sometimes to keep something in my mind."

Especially the mathematics.

"I don't like word problems," she said.

She had never studied algebra or geometry before and those were two areas of math that she found difficult to grasp.

She had to take the math test a second time to pass it.

And although she said she got a little discouraged when she didn't pass the math test after the first try, she ended up with an average of 89 percent total.

"I said I got this far, I'm not quitting now," she said.

But one subject she had no trouble acing was the writing.

The question asked her to write about a memorable experience she had encountered.

So she wrote about a trip that she had taken with her late husband to Hawaii in 1991.

She described how beautiful the flowers and the scenery were and how much fun she had visiting her daughter who lives there.

So she tells everyone who says they can't do it - especially the 20-year-olds - that if she can do it, anyone can.

"You just have to say you're going to do it," Rittenhouse said. "It's all in your mind."