Inquisitive Minds Find No Age Limit To a Life of Learning

This is a story about dreams deferred -- and dreams fulfilled. It is a story about patience and perseverance, and about one woman's quiet refusal to be bound by stereotypes of age or conventional patterns of retirement.

When Lowanda Deegan graduated from high school in 1923, her parents encouraged her to attend Syracuse University. But Mrs. Deegan had other plans. "I fell in love and married," she says, "so that stopped that."

Deegan and her husband became parents. But then, she explains, "My marriage broke up, and I was a single mother for 25 years." She worked as a social worker, an accountant, and then as a clerk at the New York State Library in Albany. Although money was tight, her son attended Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., where he graduated with honors.

Decades passed. In the early 1970s Deegan, then in her 70s, retired from the library. But leisure wasn't her strong suit. "I floundered around for one year," she says. Then she recalled an article she had read 30 years earlier about the importance of "staying in the mainstream." So she enrolled at the State University of New York in Albany.

Each semester she took one course, driving 70 miles round trip from her home in Ballston Lake, N.Y., to the campus. Nothing daunted her. One snowy morning, she says, "I got up at 2:30 to shovel out so I could be at class at 8." She enjoyed mingling with young students, and they enjoyed her.

"One year, I got a Christmas card from one of the boys," she says. "It said, 'To the most beautiful lady on campus.' Later he asked me, 'What subject are you taking next fall?' I told him, and he said, 'Oh, I'm so sorry - I wanted to be in the same class with you.'"

After more than 20 years of classes, homework, and finals, Deegan donned a cap and gown at the Knickerbocker Arena in Albany late last month and received her bachelor of arts degree in history and English. "They gave me a standing ovation when I walked in, and I threw kisses at them," she says with a laugh.

Deegan is the university's oldest graduate. But "old" is not a word in her vocabulary. "There's no such thing as old except your viewpoint of things as old," she says. "If you adopt that, you are victimized by all the shades of meaning of the word 'old' - aging, deteriorating, all that sort of thing." Her religious beliefs, she adds, made her accomplishment possible.

The day Deegan was awarded her degree, octogenarian Henry Matteo received a PhD in political science from the same university. And in January, nonagenarian Myrtle Shannon earned a BA degree in history from Roosevelt University in Chicago.

These graduates serve as reminders that in a youth-oriented culture, the young and middle-aged are not the only ones with notable accomplishments. In a decade when many corporations are consigning tens of thousands of 50-something employees to "early retirement," and when employment experts are telling young graduates they can expect as many as seven careers in their lifetime, these senior students also illustrate the importance of expanded horizons.

After local newspapers and TV stations publicized Deegan's degree, she received a flood of calls, cards, and letters. "People say that if I could do it, they could do it too. It's an example for people who don't know what to do after retirement to see that this is a possibility to get in the mainstream again," she says.

What's next? For now, there are thank you notes to write and a book about her family to publish. There's also a new television set to enjoy, a graduation gift from neighbors. But don't expect Deegan to become a couch potato. "Life is a career," she says. "I'm looking forward to the next step into the mainstream."

In this season of commencements, graduates like Lowanda Deegan, Henry Matteo, and Myrtle Shannon offer a special kind of inspiration as they throw off shackles, chart new paths, and prove that the phrase "It's never too late" is more than a hackneyed cliche.

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