Paul Vital had just marked his 16th birthday when his daddy left home for good.
It was hard for his mom to scratch out a living for Vital and four siblings in Welsh, La., a tiny town 173 miles west of New Orleans.
"He left us with nothing," Vital said. "She worked two jobs to support five kids. I was the oldest. I had to do something."
To help the family, Vital dropped out of school in 10th grade and went to work in a factory that made water beds.
Fast forward to June 2003, in Lawrence.
Vital, 37, is married to Kristine. They have two children, Keenan, 7, and Makenzie, 4.
And Vital is about to become the proud recipient of a Kansas high school diploma for completing the General Educational Development (GED) program. Graduation is 7 p.m. Thursday at Free State High School, 4700 Overland Drive.
"After 21 years, it feels great," he said. "I finally get to put on the cap and gown. I finally get to take that march."
He will be honored along with 150 other people who met GED requirements this year at the Lawrence public school district's adult learning center.
About 6,500 people finish the program in Kansas annually, said Patricia Anderson, state administrator of Kansas GED testing.
She said it would be a mistake to assume the math, writing, social studies, science and reading exams were a breeze. As a quality control measure, the tests are given to a select number of high school seniors each year.
Those who obtain scores high enough to earn a GED credential outperform at least 40 percent of Kansas high school seniors, she said.
"It's the same nationally," Anderson said.
Many recipients juggle family and full-time jobs while in the program. Most study for a GED to get a better job or for personal reasons, said Linda Scott, director of Lawrence's adult learning center.
"I needed to do this to feel better about myself and show my son that education is very important," said Wendy Goade, who wrapped up her GED in April at the Lawrence center.
Goade, a single parent living in Tonganoxie, said tough times at home while a student at Raytown (Mo.) High School caused her to miss so much school that it became apparent she wouldn't graduate with her classmates in 1987.
She dropped out instead of staying through her senior year, attending summer school and one semester of classes the next year to earn a diploma.
Goade, 34, said her son, 5-year-old D'Marco, would be a beneficiary of her GED.
"He was a real motivation for me," said Goade, who now is enrolled in a program to become a medical assistant.
Vital also was inspired to send a message to his children. His son attends Sunflower School, while his daughter will start preschool at East Heights School in August.
"My son loves school," he said. "There may come a time when he may not like it. If there ever came a time when he would talk about dropping out of school, I'd say no."
Without a diploma, Vital said it would have been impossible to set the right example.
"I'm very thankful for the public school system for this," he said. "If they didn't have a place for people to go back, there would be a lot of lost people without their education."
Staff writer Tim Carpenter can be reached at 832-7155.