Cory Smarz knew what it felt like to be a success.

For nearly 20 years, he worked his way up the corporate ladder for a national department store chain into upper management before changing careers for a stint in the automobile business.

His dreams for his family continued when they had the opportunity to leave the rat race of big city life for a chance to work alongside his sister on her farm in the quiet of the Bitterroot Valley last spring.

But, all through that time, there was always something missing.

In 1987 – when all his high-school classmates walked across the stage to get their diplomas – Smarz wasn’t with them.

“It didn’t happen for me,” he said. “I went straight to work. My diploma ended up always being put on the back burner.”

He thought about going back to school from time to time.

“There was always that fear of the unknown,” Smarz said. “And then I would think that here I am in management, do I really need it?

“The answer was always yes,” he said. “I felt incomplete for a long time.”

In September, he walked through the doors of Literacy Bitterroot in Hamilton to give education one more try.

“My son is graduating this year. I had told him that I didn’t graduate,” Smarz said. “It was tough for me to give him advice about his schooling when I hadn’t done it myself.”

Inside Literacy Bitterroot’s offices he found instructor Claudia Larsen. For the next few months, they sat side by side as he worked his way through algebra, geometry and other high school courses.

“Math was the hardest,” he said. “I’d never done algebra or geometry before.”

On Thursday, he gathered at the Literacy Bitterroot office with his wife, Tammy, and sister, Darla Coleman, to don a graduate’s cap and gown for the celebratory photograph.

Both women said they were incredibly proud of Smarz for his persistence and hard work over the last few months.

“I’m just very impressed with my brother on how he stuck to it and didn’t give up,” Coleman said. “It was a long time coming. We’re all very proud of him.”

Smarz was one of 49 students who earned their high school equivalency diploma from Literacy Bitterroot this past year. The program worked with 182 students who ranged in ages from 16 to 70.

All of that was completed with a budget of less than $100,000.

There are some big changes coming for adult education.

This is the last year for the GED test in Montana.

The state Board of Education announced earlier this year it would switch from the old system to the Educational Testing Service’s high school equivalency exam.

Literacy Bitterroot will offer its last GED test on Dec. 2, said that organization’s executive director Dixie Stark.

There is no reason for students who have completed portions of the GED testing to panic if they won’t be ready by that date for additional testing.

The state was able to negotiate with the new company an agreement that allows for students to combine their tests in both systems.

“That should reduce a lot of last-minute panic this year,” Stark said.

There have been a lot of wonderful success stories this past year at the Hamilton center, said Stark.

One graduate had a stroke when he was preparing for his examination, but still passed and entered college. Another became guardian of her two younger brothers when their father died of cancer.

Another young mother of three entered the program on the day she became homeless. After earning her GED, she entered job training and found housing.

Stark remembers the mother’s oldest girl reaching for her mom’s tassel on graduation day and saying “I want one of those. We hope that she’ll keep wanting her own tassel and work to get it.”

A child is five times more likely to complete school if their caregiver does the same, Stark said.

“We’re here to help people take charge of their own lives so they can have a good life,” she said. “Although we work with adults, we know that education can help transform lives of families as well.”

Smarz turned 44 this year.

He had never told his now 21-year-old daughter that he didn’t have a high school diploma before now.

“I was very ashamed that I didn’t have it,” Smarz said. “The hardest part about going back was a fear of failure. I didn’t want to go through that again.”

Inside the classroom of Literacy Bitterroot, he found an instructor with patience to ensure that he didn’t miss a step.

“The support I received here has been incredible,” he said. “The one on one help is what made this possible.”

With his GED in hand, Smarz sees the world in an entirely different way. He plans on finding out more about the sheriff’s reserve force and the local volunteer fire department.

“My family is just tickled to death for me,” he said. “I think that anyone who has ever had any thought of going back to school should stop by here.

“It’s the most rewarding thing that anyone at my age could experience,” Smarz said. “I’ve had things that I wanted to do. Now, I can do them.”

Reach reporter Perry Backus at 363-3300 or pbackus@ravallirepublic.com.

Reporter Perry Backus can be reached at pbackus@ravallirepublic.com.

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Reporter for The Ravalli Republic.