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Upstate man earns GED 60 years after dropping out of school

Posted September 17

— Mel Friesen figures by now he should be decrepit and unable to see or think clearly.

Yet, Friesen managed to surprise even himself by enduring months of studying to achieve a GED certificate. He graduated just a few months ago.

"Perhaps that was a lesson," said Friesen, whose 80th birthday was Sept. 2. "If I desire to do it, I may tackle it. It may turn out to be an achievement. You're only as old as you think you are."

Taking the GED is "not easy at all and has a ton of tests required," Friesen's daughter, Laurie Hughes, said in an email to The Greenville News. "I'm proud of my father for his perseverance and especially at his age."

A native of Toronto, Canada, Friesen had not been in a "studying-writing-test mode" for 60 years when he decided to take the GED exams.

He dropped out of high school in the 11th grade — the highest grade level offered at the three-room high school he attended in the farming community of Manitoba, Canada.

At that time, Friesen said he was a "Casanova" and he hated science.

His science score in the 11th grade was 48. He needed at least a 50.

Instead of going to summer school to re-take the course, Friesen said he "just dropped out."

"I was just flat out lazy and couldn't be bothered doing it, never realizing how significant that would be later in life," he said.

It didn't become significant until Friesen moved to the Greenville area in 2007 to be near his three daughters. They'd come to Greenville to attend Bob Jones University and decided to settle here.

Immediately after leaving high school, Friesen joined the Canadian Air Force, which took him from Manitoba to "the big city" of Montreal.

He later became self-employed as a general sales trainer, with clients in insurance, plumbing, financial planning and other industries.

After his first wife passed away, Friesen took two to three years off. Then he met Melba and the two got married. The couple, now living in Simpsonville, will soon celebrate their first anniversary.

Friesen, who had been affiliated for some time with Dale Carnegie Training, came to Greenville partially as his own boss. He worked with sales organizations, providing training.

Earlier this year, Friesen noted the activity in real estate market here and decided to become a part of it.

In real estate, every purchase generates a large amount of commission — $3,000 to $5,000 per sale, he said.

"I said to myself, "I wouldn't need more than two or three of those in a month," Friesen said. "And, I'm at a point now where I want to spend as much time with my new bride as I possibly can. I want to maximize my income to spend more time at home with my wife. That was my motivation," he said.

He took a real estate course at Greenville Technical College. It was when he decided to get a license to practice that he was told he needed a GED certificate.

It's the first time he'd run into a requirement where he needed to take the GED exams to proceed.

"I was a little surprised," he said. A GED diploma was never required elsewhere in his life, "so I never gave it a second thought."

But in this case, "I said to myself, 'Well I guess I ought to do it,' said Friesen, who has 12 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.

A receptionist at Greenville Tech referred him to the GED program at United Ministries.

After learning he was qualified to take the exams, he found out it was free and "I could sit at the computer there to do the sample exams and take home study materials," he said.

Friesen said he was, by far, the oldest person preparing for the exams. Most appeared to be between the ages of 18 to 25.

"I was certainly the odd ball there — me and my white hair," he said.

But he was there frequently for two months, going through all of the paces. One exam he had to write in Spartanburg.

To pass, he had to master four topics — math, science, geography and language. Math and science, he said, were the most difficult.

"I don't have an affinity for science, especially. I'm a piano player. I'm not a chemist," he said. "But I knuckled down and said, OK. I'll memorize this. I dug in and I did it."

Among the discoveries he made was that learning, in a sense, is like a working a muscle.

"If I exercise my muscle, it becomes stronger and as I was studying, concentrating and focusing, it became easier and easier," he said "By the time I wrote my final exam, it was almost like a breeze.

"I appreciated that. I do not like to be sluggish mentally. I like to be sharp and so I saw that as a process. It became easier as I went along," he said.

He'd studied to the point where he scored an 85 on a sample math exam when he only needed a 70.

He thought to himself, "I'm good to go."

But when he went to take the final exams, "there were questions on there I had never seen or heard of. I didn't even recognize the mathematical formula."

Friesen said he relied on his faith to pass the test, which was multiple choice. He prayed and asked God to direct him to the right answers.

"I said, 'God, if you want me to do this, I'll follow you.' God led me through it. It turned out successful," Friesen said. "I'm the first to say, I am what I am because of God."

He is a now a licensed real estate agent with Keller Williams in Greenville.

He also is an "encouragement and an inspiration," to his wife, Melba.

"He's been a real find," she said.

An interesting finding, according to Friesen, was when he applied for his real estate license, he was asked whether he had a GED certificate.

He was only required to check "yes" in response, but was never asked to provide a copy of the actual certificate.

"They have yet to ask for it. They just accepted my word," he said. "I could have lied and checked it years ago. But, of course, I'm not a lying person. I wouldn't do that."

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