On Wednesday, Rick Soule, 72, of Fairfield will receive a high school diploma more than 50 years after he dropped out of school to work in the logging industry.

Over the course of Soule’s lifetime, graduation from high school has become an accepted reality. When Soule was born in 1942, just one in four adults had graduated from high school. Today, 85 percent of adults have that diploma, according to a recent U.S. Census Bureau report.

Soule has worked hard, mainly in physical labor, for his entire life, but ever since he quit Farmington’s Mt. Blue High School in 1957 at age 15, he has been self-conscious about his missing academic credential.

“I felt inferior about that,” Soule said. “It made me feel like a dummy.”

Deb Bomaster, director of the Lawrence Adult Education program, said Soule’s feelings about finishing high school later in life are felt by others.

Her response to them is always the same.

“It doesn’t matter,” she tells them. “You’re doing it now.”

Soule is one of thousands of adults who will receive an alternative diploma this year. Last year, 3,213 Maine adults completed adult education courses, according to Gail Senese, state director of adult education for Maine’s Department of Education.

But most of those students are younger. Among those 60 or older without a diploma, just 9 percent return to complete high school, Senese said.

Elder students are often seeking their diploma for personal reasons.

“It’s a life goal,” Senese said. “You just feel complete because you earn your high school credential. You want to tell your kids and grandkids and set that example for them.”

Soule took a few tries to finish.

“I’d tried before,” Soule said. “This time here, I happened to make it.”

INTO THE WOODS

Soule’s early life story is typical of the era in which he lived.

When he was a teen growing up in Industry, he and high school never got along – even working through simple arithmetic problems was torture.

“I had an attention problem,” he said. “It was hard for me to learn. My mind seemed to be always somewhere else.”

If he were in school today, he said, he would probably have been diagnosed with an attention deficit disorder and given a curriculum that engaged him more thoroughly.

During his school days, his mind would buzz with the non-academic topics – outdoor activities, lifting weights, and girls. By contrast, the academic material was dull.

Now, he looks back on the decision his younger self made with a mixture of amusement and disbelief.

“I wanted to go work in the woods, of all things,” he said.

His family was opposed to Soule’s decision, but there was little they could do to change his mind.

“I just told my parents that I wanted to go to work,” he said. “They tried to talk me out of not getting done, but I was stubborn back then.”

Soule went into logging, as his father had done before him. Later came work in sawmills in Industry and North Anson. His bosses cared far more about his work ethic and strong back, and he racked up 50 or 60 hours a week when times were good.

“Back then, people could leave school and they would get really good-paying jobs at the paper mill,” Bomaster said.

Over the years, those jobs have gone away, leaving many people without credentials needed for jobs elsewhere.

In 1969, Soule started a garbage-collection route and built it into a business he ran for 45 years until heart issues led him to sell.

Left with nothing to do, he decided it was time to go back to school.

Bomaster said she remembers the day Soule walked into the center and told her he wanted to get a diploma. She reviewed his 50-year-old transcripts, then learned he had taken an adult education class on recycling in the 1990s, which gave him additional academic credits, putting him close to what he needed.

Soule began going to class again, sitting at a school desk every day for months alongside classmates less than half his age.

“It came easier for me than it did when I was younger,” he said. “I think maybe my mind wasn’t so much on other things. I seem to focus better.”

The gap in ages wasn’t a problem between Soule and his younger classmates.

“They enjoyed having him in class,” she said. “He’s quite a character.”

Soule encouraged the younger students by sharing his experiences, telling them not to wait until age 70 to go back to school like he did.

Data back that up. The federal report shows that earnings go up with education levels, with those who attain GEDs earning more than those who get no degree at all, although they make a little less than those who finish high school on time.

A full-time year-round worker with no diploma has a median annual wage of $24,520; those who get an alternative credential like Soule have a median wage of $30,915; high school diploma holders earn $33,213; those with some college or a two-year degree earn $39,867; those with a bachelor’s earn $56,472 and those with advanced degrees earn a median annual wage of $74,248.

Bomaster encouraged other adults without degrees to call the adult education center. Classes run for most of the year and are free, she said.

Bomaster said Soule helped one student in particular, a shy woman in her 20s who was discouraged because she was trying to juggle school with marriage, a young child and a job.

“He got her out of her shell,” she said. “He encouraged her to come to classes.”

NEW BEGINNINGS

On Wednesday, Soule will leave the ranks of the dwindling population of those who never got their high school diploma.

In Maine, 90 percent of adults have graduated high school, the 10th-best rate in the nation and third in New England, behind New Hampshire and Vermont.

Soule has seen the cultural shift toward higher educational attainment with his own eyes. His children, stepchildren and grandchildren have either gotten their high school diplomas or are on track to do so.

Studying for his degree wasn’t just a symbolic gesture by Soule to help banish nagging feelings of inadequacy.

“I would like to take and get a job,” he said. “I don’t know, anything that would give us some extra income.”

Looking back, Soule said he thinks completing high school on time would have steered him away from jobs in logging, lumber and garbage.

“I would have set my sights on something like a doctor or lawyer, or accounting,” he said. “There are so many varieties in life that people can do to make good.”

Soule’s graduation event is scheduled for 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Williamson Center in the high school. In all, about a dozen students will join him in earning their High School Equivalency Test diploma. Bomaster said Soule will also be honored during the ceremony with a membership in the National Adult Education Honor Society, which recognizes graduates for their attendance, cooperation and work ethic.

From there, Soule hasn’t ruled out the idea of continuing his education.

“I’ve even thought about maybe taking a course in college,” he said.