UNION BRIDGE — His grandson posed the question: What year did you graduate?
It'sa question William Steele Sr. had avoided ever since he left high school his junior year, lured by money and the sea.
"I was embarrassed that I didn't have a diploma," Steele said.
Some 30 years after he left high school in a small Allegany County town to join the Navy, Steele received a Maryland high school diploma.
The 50-year-old earned his diploma last March through the Maryland Adult External High School Program, administered locally by the county school system's alternative education office in Westminster.
"I feel I've been successful in my life," Steele said. "But (the diploma) was something I always wanted to get but I just never found the time."
Steele, the father of a son and daughter in their 30s, foundthe time after he retired last fall from Steele's Sales and Service on Main Street in Union Bridge. He sold the business to his son William Steele Jr. in the fall of 1990.
"I had the urge to start makingmoney and left school," Steele recalled. "I was able to do that. ButI think I probably could have made more and made it more easily had I gotten my diploma."
Steele spent three years as a seaman in the Navy. For the most part, the ship he served on was dry docked in New York and he didn't see much of the world. He visited Spain once during his military stint.
"I was young and had the perfect opportunityat someone else's expense to see the world," he said. "My eyes weren't opened for me to see that."
Instead, Steele left the sea to become a mechanic at a Chevrolet dealership in West Virginia, not too far from his hometown of Rawlings. He found his vocation in automobile mechanics.
He left the vocation a few years later to become a signal communications mechanic for Western Maryland Railroad and moved his family to Union Bridge. Steele remained at the job for 10 years.
"It really was a great job," he said. "It was a good paying job. I was good at what I did but I didn't like it. My interest was in auto mechanics."
In the early 1970s, Steele bought the service station in town and pumped gas, worked on cars and supported his family.
"It's where I made my money," he said. "It bought me a house and paid for it. It became my son's employment, too. I'm proud of him.
"I don't think he ever knew that I didn't have a high school diploma," he added. "It's not like a broken leg -- something everybody can see. There was nothing about me that said I didn't have a diploma."
Steele, who still shows up at the gas station to help his son with odds and ends, considers himself lucky.
None of his employers ever asked to see a high school diploma. And once he became self-employed that possibility all but disappeared -- until he had curious grandchildren.He has three of them, between ages 8 and 11.
"I was always afraidthey were going to ask me about it," he said. "I didn't want to be embarrassed."
A newspaper article about Carroll's external high school program prompted Steele to finally take the steps needed to get his diploma.
"It looked like something I could do," he said. "And because I was retired I had plenty of time. It was actually fun."
The external education program provides an alternative to the classroom, teacher-pupil and test-taking structure of the GED programs, said Jeanne Clark, an adviser and assessor in the alternative education office.
After completing assessment tests to determine competency inmath, reading and writing, students are required to complete five tasks -- each one addresses a different aspect of adulthood or real life, she said.
One task, for example, is government awareness. Students are required to know elected officials, at the national, state and local levels. They have to know why a citizen would want to contactone of those officials.
Students also need to participate in government by voting, writing a letter, attending a court session or a town meeting.
Students present their findings both verbally and in writing. There are no tests.
Other tasks involve nutrition and problem solving. The programs involves one-on-one consultations with advisers.
"When the tasks have been completed, all the work is 100 percent correct. It's strictly a self-paced program and requires great motivation on their part," Clark said.
Steele proved to be a motivated student.
"He had good reasons why he wanted to earn a high school diploma," Clark said. "It was his decision.
"He had life experiences to share," she added. "Many of things he was asked to do, he was already prepared for. He was motivated. He could see that there was going to be a diploma at the end of all this."
Clark said Steelewas typical of other students, who long before in their lives realized something was missing without that diploma.
"They often feel a void," she said.
The majority of students in the external program are women, generally between ages 30 and 45. Thirty-six students haveearned their diplomas this year, Clark said. The fee for the programis $45.
"It's a lot of work," she said. "It really does require 10 to 12 hours at home to complete a single task. With our program, there are no margins for error. When a diploma is in your hand, your work was 100 percent correct."
For Steele, the effort was worth it.
"I haven't done anything that felt as good as this," he said. "It's a good feeling I have about myself now. I have a sense of accomplishment. I filled up a little empty space in my life."
Steele has some advice for others, young and not so young.
"I would encourage the youth of today to stay in school," he said.
"And for people whodon't have a diploma, there's no reason you can't get one. Don't be afraid to go back."