Ethel Londelius kept the secret for a lifetime.
The stigma of being a college dropout was so great that she could never bring herself to tell her own children.
"I felt ashamed," the Atwater Village resident said.
But, when the truth finally came out last year under the prodding of her suspicious son, it precipitated a surprise ending. After learning of Londelius' story, the University of Washington re-examined its records and decided to bestow a degree--74 years after she attended her last class.
The diploma, which arrived this spring, is believed to make Londelius, 98, the university's oldest graduate.
The story goes back to 1918 when Londelius left college just one-half unit short of the 180 she needed for a bachelor's degree in home economics.
She said she had already rented a cap and gown when the university informed her that she would need to take one more exam to graduate.
"I don't know why I didn't" take it, said Londelius, an elegant-looking woman, with blue eyes and high cheekbones.
"You were probably so disgusted and disappointed," offered her son, Frank Londelius, who retold the story with her last week, sitting in the living room of the apartment they share.
Instead of returning to school, Londelius worked briefly as a secretary and then married a World War I veteran and sports writer.
The couple moved to Los Angeles in 1940 because doctors thought the climate would be better for her husband, who had emphysema. He died two years later, however, leaving Londelius to raise their daughter and son.
It was Frank Londelius, now 61, who finally forced the issue of the college degree.
He said he always suspected his mother might not have finished her college education because he had never seen any evidence of her graduation. Last fall, he wrote a letter to the university, requesting a copy of her transcript.
Although she consented to sign the letter, Ethel Londelius still refused to acknowledge the half credit she never completed. Only when her son produced her transcript did she admit that she had never graduated.
But, in looking up the records, university officials discovered that Londelius had taken 12 units of physical education, for which credit was not given in her college days. More than 20 years ago, the university had changed the no-credit policy, allowing up to three units of physical education to count toward graduation. It was judged that Londelius had earned a degree with two and a half units to spare.
The diploma, dated Dec. 19, 1991, arrived in March.
"I was really happy about that. Oh, was I happy about that," said Londelius. "Then when I got it, I sure was glad, and my daughter had it framed."
The diploma is prominently displayed in her living room.
University administrators seem just as delighted to have awarded the degree.
"It's wonderful that we have someone who is graduating at that age who is so alive and interested in what's going on," said Richard Simkins, director of academic counseling, who made the determination that Londelius could receive credits for classes she took 74 years ago. "I just can't imagine that anyone else would have received a degree at a more advanced age."
In addition to home economics courses, Londelius studied German, music, psychology, physics, botany, math, zoology, chemistry, English literature, history and political science, according to Simkins.
Ethel Londelius said that she will not attend the June 13 commencement because of her son's work schedule and because she has dizzy spells.
Unlike other recent college graduates, Londelius, who now has two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, does not seem anxious about the current job market.
"I'm not worried about it because I'm not going out after it," she said.