Going to the head of the class

Gertrude Samuels, with her son and her two grandchildren cheering her on, represented her 1982 New York University graduating class of 7,500 students as valedictorian. An audience of over 12,000 heard her summarize her life experience, from birth in Manchester, England, to graduation cap-and-gown at the university's 150th commencement in New York City.

It was a proud moment. Her son, Dr. Paul Oppenheimer, a college professor and poet, hugged his mother and said, ''Well, Mom, you did it!'' Ten-year-old grandson Benjamin told a reporter matter-of-factly, ''If my grandmother wanted to get a college degree, why shouldn't she?''

A television interviewer, speaking to many graduates, asked with a smile how she thought she would like being out in the big, wide world. She said she'd been out in it since she was 15, a good many years in fact, and that she liked it just fine, indeed even relished it.

Her speech, as a somewhat senior valedictorian, gave her a chance to say what a great place college is for older citizens. ''Growing older, to me, has always meant growing,'' she said. ''Growing with ideas, stretching oneself intellectually and professionally. Stretching, stretching, stretching. That is the only way. All my contacts and classes at NYU kept me at it.''

She said she had become so enchanted with this whole new academic world that ''I'm already doing post-graduate work, and in a couple of years I'll have my master's degree.''

Although Ms. Samuels has had years of experience as a career journalist, photographer, playwright, and author, she had always described herself as a college dropout from the l930s. She never thought she would complete her degree.

The Gertrude Samuels byline has appeared in the New York Post, Time, and Newsweek. For 30 years she was a staff writer, foreign correspondent, and photographer for the New York Times, traveling throughout the United States, Europe, and the Middle and Far East to cover human-interest stories.

Once, after her marriage to a refugee from Nazi Germany and the birth of her son Paul, she stayed home for three months to be a full-time wife and mother. ''But it couldn't work for me,'' she says. ''I'd tasted printer's ink; and anyway we needed the rent money. Later I needed the money to give Paul the best education I could afford for him.''

The spunky journalist's interests have ranged from the plight of European Jews caught in the Holocaust, to refugees in camps for displaced persons, to juvenile justice, war in Korea, and school integration in the South. She left the Times in 1975 to devote herself full-time to writing books, plays, and magazine articles.

The word ''retirement'' is not in her vocabulary. She does not believe in it. She simply believes that one moves on, with expectation, through the different phases of life.

''In all of us,'' she says, ''there is so much potential to be realized and so many creative things we can be doing. I think of life as a voyage of discovery. Chronological years have nothing to do with that voyage. I will never have time enough to investigate everything that interests me.''

From her youngest years, she says, she has wanted to be a writer. She is beginning research this summer for her next book. She'll start it on her new houseboat, the SeaRobin, which is berthed in a Long Island marina, and is opening up to her a new world of ''boat people and sea life and resort living and birds and fish and sunsets over the water.''

That's another aspect of growing, she declares - keeping an open mind to new experiences and new people. ''I love the libraries and museums where I do my research. Each one offers an opportunity to become involved with topics and people in a fresh way. I love New York, too, and I take advantage of what it offers. But the pace is giddy, so every now and again I get away. I travel. I get a new perspective.''

This writer-valedictorian discovered the Gallatin Division of New York University one summer day when she was strolling around Greenwich Village and looking ''for some open society where my life experience and ambitions could go on being enriched and realized.''

The Gallatin Division, now 10 years old, was her answer. It is set up for mature and self-directed students (ranging this year in age from 17 to 81) who want an individualized program of study that will enhance or redirect their careers. They can receive credit for their own life experience, and are free to choose courses from the university's many schools and colleges.

Ms. Samuels decided to pursue formal studies that would enable her to realize one of her ambitions: to bring back to America live radio drama and live television theater. During her three years at the school, she studied with distinguished scholars, authors, and editors, and spent six weeks in England studying and viewing 12 Shakespeare productions.

Among other things she wrote, cast, and directed a play for radio broadcast in her radio workshop, and she took a course called Drama in Education, which revolutionized her whole approach to stretching the minds of children. She went to classes only in the late afternoon or evening, and devoted her days to her own writing.

She admits her experience may have been short on typical campus involvement. But she was no ordinary student, and she got what she went to get, intellectual stimulation and widened horizons. One day she thinks she may get involved at the university as a coach to bright young writing talents.

The honor of being named valedictorian came as a complete surprise. She had thought she might quietly steal away to her houseboat. But she had to stand up, face what she describes as her ''inner terror'' at looking out on an audience of 12,000 faces, and speak her piece. She did, after all, represent her class, and there was no way out but to do again what she has so often done: stretch herself and do the job well.

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