Friday, Dec. 9, 2011 | 2 a.m.
Ninety-year-old Michael Zone has experienced more of life than most of us can imagine.
He was part of the D-Day invasion of Normandy Beach during World War II. He covered the gritty underbelly of a major city as a reporter for a major metropolitan newspaper. He even wrote jokes and monologues for famous comedians such as Bob Hope.
But if you ask the nonagenarian about his proudest accomplishment, he would say it’s earning his high school diploma Thursday as the oldest graduating student of the Clark County School District.
“I feel like a quarterback making the final touchdown pass to finish the game,” Zone said. “It’s the proudest day of my life.”
When Zone was 17 — a junior in high school — he dropped out and enlisted in the Canadian army. It was 1939, and World War II was about to break out in Europe. The Montreal native felt he had a duty to serve his country.
“I was a patriot,” he said. “It wasn’t just putting on a uniform. I had to go.”
After fighting the Nazis in Europe, Zone made his way to Los Angeles in 1946 to live with his sister. He didn’t want to be a burden, so he took on any jobs he could find.
He worked his way from the advertising department at the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner to become a reporter. To supplement his income, he freelanced as a comedy writer, writing jokes for big-name entertainers such as Victor Borge, Red Skelton and Bob Hope.
Zone even took a job selling vacuum cleaners door to door. Once, someone reported him to the authorities and had him deported for “taking American jobs,” he said. That night spent at a Long Beach, Calif., immigration facility made him realize the importance of getting a good education, he said.
“Without an education, you’re lost,” Zone said. “Life is a hell of a lot more interesting with an education.”
Zone eventually returned to the United States, and became a citizen in 1960. Over the next few decades, Zone married his wife of 44 years and had three children. He started several businesses, one selling store fixtures for department stores such as J.C. Penney and Sears. His real estate brokerage business eventually took him to Las Vegas in 1990, where he lives in semiretirement.
Two years ago, Zone was looking to take up a new activity after his health didn’t allow him to play golf anymore. He told a friend he wanted to finish high school; the friend suggested he enroll at Desert Rose Adult High School and Career Center.
Zone was encouraged by the school’s motto: “It’s never too late to graduate.” He joked he wanted to pass high school before he passed on, he said.
“Before I go up to the school in the sky, I just wanted to finish high school,” he said. “That was just the feeling I had.”
Zone drew his inspiration and motivation from his 13-year-old grandson, Matthew Zone. The elder Zone wanted to set a good example for the eighth-grader, so he enrolled at the school of second chances located in North Las Vegas.
“My family, they thought I was kidding at first,” he said, laughing. “But they’re proud of me. They got to have respect for me now.”
Although his family was surprised by Zone’s decision to go back to school at age 88, it didn’t shock Desert Rose Principal Sandra Ransel. Her father returned to high school and graduated at age 85.
“It takes a really good sense of self, going back to school with a lot of younger students,” Ransel said. “But education is a lifelong activity. We never give up on our students.”
Desert Rose offers alternative students, high school dropouts and adults a second chance at earning their high school diplomas. More than 2,600 students have graduated from the school since it opened.
The school allows students to finish up missing credits and prepares them to pass four proficiency exams necessary to graduate. Classes are offered in the morning, afternoon and evening to account for students’ work schedules.
Zone returned to high school in September 2009. At first, other students mistook him for a professor, handing him their assignments when he came to class early.
Roy Addington, Zone’s first teacher at Desert Rose, recalled thinking he was a school administrator. Zone was four times older than most of his students, and older than his own father, Addington said.
“He’s a little guy, but he’s just extraordinary,” the freshman and sophomore English teacher said. “He didn’t need a diploma. He got it out of sheer pride.”
For six hours a day, five days a week, Zone attended class in the morning and studied at home. Sometimes he’d compare notes with his grandson, he said.
Eventually, Zone completed his required 20.5 credits and passed three out of four exams. He was just eight points shy of passing the math exam, which tests students on geometry, algebra and statistics.
“At my age, it’s not easy to study math,” he said. “It was hard to remember all the formulas.”
Ransel and other educators at Desert Rose pursued a special military designation that allows veterans to graduate with a special diploma. Zone had come so far, and he should be allowed to graduate, they argued.
However, the military provision didn’t allow for foreign service members, Ransel said. Zone walked in Desert Rose’s graduation ceremony in June, but only received a certificate of attendance.
“It drove me crazy,” Zone said. “But I was adamant. I wanted to finish it.”
The High School Proficiency Exam isn’t an easy test, Addington said. Many Clark County students, when they fail, just give up, he said.
“Michael overcame that disappointment,” he said. “Everybody makes mistakes, but he just kept trying. He’s an extraordinary human being.”
Zone went back to the books, and employed the help of a volunteer tutor. He redoubled his efforts, he said, and finally passed the math test in November.
“We’re real pleased he completed all his requirements,” Ransel said. “He had such a positive attitude about it. I admire him for that.”
Zone was honored at Thursday’s School Board meeting, greeted with a resounding standing ovation from more than 100 people in attendance. Superintendent Dwight Jones and School Board member Linda Young presented Zone with his diploma as the Pomp and Circumstance March played over the speakers and camera flashes went off.
After Zone turned his tassel from right to left, he took to the lecturn. He thanked his family in attendance – wife Mary, daughter Fran and son Scott – and in his trademark deadpan humor, told the crowd why he went to Desert Rose.
"I was told they had a hockey team," he said to laughter from the audience. "For some reason, they didn't turn out so good, so I figured I'll just get my diploma."
“Every day is the right day to graduate,” Ransel said, beaming. “He really shows you that.”
The proud principal is reminded that more than 10,000 seniors this year are at risk of not graduating. They risk a life of unemployment or low-paying jobs, she said.
Zone has a message to those students: “Don’t give up, no matter what,” he said. “Without a diploma, you can’t go anywhere in this world.”