Dorothy Reimers, 74, shared a long-forgotten injustice with her nieces when they were chatting during a recent summer visit.
Her principal had called her into his office a month before graduation during her senior year at Highland High School in Illinois. A four-year honors student, she had been nominated for the National Honor Society (NHS) -- but she wasn’t going to get in. The principal informed her that he was going to give the honor to a boy ranked lower than her because “it would help him on his resume,” she recalled.
Reimers was a shy girl who had grown up on a farm in the country, and didn’t question what the principal told her.
“I was ranked 12th in my high-school class,” she said.
After hearing the story, Anne-Christine Massullo, a superior court judge in San Francisco and Reimers’ niece by marriage, was flabbergasted.
“This makes me so upset for Aunt Dorothy,” she said. She and Reimers’ other nieces describe her as a giver -- a person who never asks for anything and has spent a life sacrificing for others. It’s hard for them, with successful careers, to remember that it wasn’t that long ago that a woman’s options were far more limited.
Reimers said she had never thought of the incident after it happened. But she did get a little teary when she shared the story for the first time. She had not gone to college -- never imagined it was a possibility -- and instead worked as a secretary for 20 years after she graduated. She eventually got married and took care of her husband after he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
“She is wicked smart,” said her niece Laura Porter, a musician and business owner in Los Angeles. “We fantasize about everything she could have done with her life if she had even known it was possible.” They imagine she could have run a large corporation.
Later on in the visit, Massullo hatched a plan. She told Porter that she wanted to contact Highland High and ask officials to make their aunt a member of the honor society.
What was the worst that could happen?
The school’s guidance office secretary, Sarah Wiegman, answered when Massullo called in August. Wiegman went into the school’s storage room and pulled the files with old student transcripts. Her research confirmed that Reimers had met the criteria -- and had, indeed, been ranked higher than the boy who was inducted into the NHS back in 1962. She referred the case to the school’s NHS adviser, who presented the facts to NHS senior officers.
They unanimously voted to induct Reimers into the organization as an honorary member.
The nieces decided to surprise their aunt on Thanksgiving with the certificate. First, they asked her to retell the story for the family members gathered.
When Massullo pulled out the certificate, Reimers burst into tears.
“You did this for me?” she asked. Her older brother, now 81, was also crying.
They told her they did it because they love her. And also because she had earned it.
“Nobody had the right to take that from me,” she said, with a hard-earned wisdom. “I worked for that.” Reimers said that if the same thing happened today, when she’s older and wiser, she would never stand for it.
She wonders what happened to the boy who received the honor meant for her. The principal had taken more than an award from her; he had told her that her achievements should benefit a boy. That the boy’s future mattered far more than hers. Reimers lost out on a milestone academic achievement and the possibilities that could have come with it.
“It was stolen from her in that moment,” Porter said.
More than 56 years later, they made sure she got it back.