It's Alec Bloom's favorite story about life as an 84-year-old college student.
"I am in the class with a lady professor and, one evening, she brought in her two children," said the Sherman Oaks resident, his eyes twinkling. "And the little boy walked over to me and kept staring at me and I said to myself, 'What is he staring at?' "
"Then he turned to his mother and said, 'He is not so old.' "
To a standing ovation Thursday before his children and grandchildren and more than 600 fellow Valley College graduates, Bloom proved the little boy right.
Seventy years after he quit high school to help provide for his family in Chicago, the former businessman choked back tears as he received his Associate of Arts degree in Jewish studies. The event, which featured Bloom as one of the commencement speakers, was held on the college football field.
"All my life I've wanted an education," Bloom said during his speech.
The eldest son of a Ukrainian cigar roller and a seamstress, he left school at 14 to deliver telegrams for a nickel apiece. "I want to leave a legacy for my children. I want to be remembered that at 84, I graduated with a college degree. I want them to know that they can be successful in reaching whatever goals they set for themselves by thinking positively."
The Valley College event was among three community college commencements in the Valley this week. About 1,000 students graduated from Pierce College on Thursday and 288 students graduated Friday from Mission College.
A former president of his own tile company in Chicago, Bloom was spurred into college by his family four years ago after the death of his wife, Ruth. Bloom's family was represented at his graduation by his daughter and son, their spouses, and one of his five grandchildren. He also has four great-grandchildren.
Although he denied himself an education in order to support his family, Bloom made sure his three younger siblings and his children had the opportunity.
"He sent one brother through dental school," said son Jordan Bloom, a bank vice president from Sherman Oaks. "And his other brother became president of Love's Barbecue and Orange Julius. The other sister graduated in mathematics. He paid for it all."
Despite being partially deaf and working 40 hours a week while attending college (up to this semester, when he took 18 units), the wiry man graduated with honors and a 3.8 grade-point average. Along the way, he earned the affection of professors and students alike.
"I was amazed," said 19-year-old Cristi Harris of Studio City, who attended the graduation just to see Bloom get his diploma. "We did one group project together and even after the report was done, he kept bringing in things on the subject to give us more information."
Bloom will enroll in summer classes at Cal State Northridge to pursue a four-year degree in history. And don't expect him to quit school after his next graduation.
"I'm going to be a professional student," said Bloom, who, when the time comes, wants to be buried with his diploma. "I'm like a dried old sponge on the shelf and suddenly they throw me in a bucket of water. I want to absorb all the education I can."