Although he left high school 55 years ago, Mac Blakely finally got his diploma this month, spurred to return to classes and complete his education after watching his 34-year-old daughter speak about achievement at her high school graduation ceremony last year.

"When I saw her get her diploma, my mind was made up right then and there that I wanted mine too," said the 72-year-old grandfather of eight who lives in the Charles County town of Bryan's Road. "I was the only one in the family who had not received a high school diploma. It was something that I wanted to do. The time just seemed right."

Blakely and his daughter, Pat Donaldson, both dropped out of school at times when they, as well as society, often considered a high school education to be optional. They tried to return to school together to get their general equivalency diplomas several years ago but Blakely broke his hip and their effort was sidetracked. Then Donaldson enrolled in the Maryland Adult External High School Diploma Program, which awards diplomas based on credits earned for life experiences and skills taught in classes, such as how to write resumes and apply for jobs.

"I quit school when I was 18 years old to get married," said Donaldson, a mother of four boys. "I didn't feel like I needed a high school education. I said to myself, 'You know . . . you'll have kids . . . . You don't need it.' But when I had my children, I got older and I realized then just how important a diploma really was."

Blakely, a former assistant manager for a service station in Washington, had a similar but more complicated story to tell. "I left at 17 because of sickness in my family," he explained. "I had to take care of my father, who was a total invalid. I was young. It was during the Depression when most people had to stop school and go to work. A lot of people were just like I was; they didn't go back to school -- they didn't finish."

Blakely and Donaldson are the first father-daughter team to graduate from the External High School Program, according to Wanda Howell-Pingatore, the program's regional coordinator. Blakely is believed to be the oldest person ever to complete the course, Pingatore said. "He did very well," she said. "We say the average time to complete the program is four to six months. He took about four months and that's very good . . . considering we have 20-year-olds that take a lot longer than he did."

About 130 people a year graduate from the program's three centers in Prince George's, Charles and Calvert counties.

"What I'd like to do now that I've finished is to be good will ambassador for the school, go out and try to get more people, especially the elderly, interested in this course," Blakely said. "This diploma is a large satisfaction to me, and I know that it would be to everybody else."