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Brain-tumour diagnosis spurs effort to get high-school diploma

Less than a year after being diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, 61-year-old Peter Rey will do something tonight that he’s wanted to do his entire life. He will graduate from high school. “I always regretted it.
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Peter Rey says he always regretted that he never finished high school. Tonight, he'll be one of 29 graduates to receive an adult Dogwood high school diploma from S.J. Willis Education Centre.

Less than a year after being diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, 61-year-old Peter Rey will do something tonight that he’s wanted to do his entire life.

He will graduate from high school.

“I always regretted it. I had to pretend my whole life I was a high-school graduate, but I wasn’t,” said Rey, who lives in Saanich with his wife.

Rey will be one of 29 graduates to receive an adult Dogwood high school diploma from S.J. Willis Education Centre this evening.

The continuing-education school helps adults upgrade courses and graduate when they are ready, said vice-principal Leah Moreau.

“You can’t predict what life is going to throw at you. We have students who’ve had all kinds of obstacles,” said Moreau, noting Rey is one of three 60-somethings in the grad class. Adult graduates range in age, and reasons vary for returning to school after a gap, she said.

“It’s never too late. That’s why we’re here,” she said.

Rey grew up on the west side of Vancouver and went to Eric Hamber Secondary. He quit school halfway through Grade 10 after a “crackdown on attendance,” he said.

“I completed the assignments and tests, but had missed too many classes,” said Rey, who missed 25 classes in each subject. The new policy said missing 15 could lead to being expelled.

“Those were the times. Long hair and bell-bottom jeans. Hanging out with friends,” he said. “Dropping out of high school was common. We were going to change the world and the world was going to change for us.”

Rey tried out Kitsilano Secondary, but left after a month to work a few odd jobs. Eventually, he got a job with the city.

“I was 18, blasting dynamite to help build the seawall. It was the most fun I’d had,” he said. He saved some money and bought a ticket to Europe and a rail pass to travel for a year.

“It was one of the most educational experiences of my life,” said Rey.

His more than 40-year career in heating, air and ventilation sales and management began upon his return, with jobs in Vancouver, Calgary and eventually Sinclair Supply in Victoria.

In 1996, Rey married his wife, Pamela, who had children, and became a Christian.

He said his life was turned upside down last June on a trip with his wife up-Island.

“We decided to take a trip to a B&B in Nanaimo at North Lake,” said Rey, who was having symptoms such as staring blankly and hearing voices. “We’d checked in, and after two hours, things were getting weird. … My wife wanted to go home, and I said: ‘When we get back to Victoria, I’d like to go to the hospital.’ ”

Rey said he had a terrible headache by the time they reached Victoria General Hospital. He was almost at the emergency entrance when he fell to the ground, luckily a grassy area, and had a major seizure.

A neurosurgeon at the hospital told Rey he had a tumour. Within a month, he’d had surgery and started treatment, but the long-term prognosis was not good.

“They said there’s no cure for it. There’s a 50 per cent chance of dying in the next year and a half,” said Rey, who hopes he’ll be around longer with treatment. “But I just can’t describe the look on my wife’s face. It was very hard.”

Rey said he had always wanted to finish school and facing death made him even more determined.

He sent the Ministry of Education a letter about his situation and work experience and was referred to the continuing-education program at SJ Willis Education Centre to apply for his Dogwood diploma.

“My wife said when I want to do something, she says, ‘You can’t stop him,’ ” Rey said, adding he would also like to canoe around the Gorge waterway and has always wanted to skydive or bungee jump.

His wife is not keen on the latter two, he said.

“We’re both accepting of what’s happening in my life and death, whichever way it goes,” said Rey. “But I still believe in miracles. They can happen.”

spetrescu@timescolonist.com