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    Grad took long route to degree

    She quit school to work on the family farm. Now, 66 years later, she'll get her bachelor's degree.

    [Times photo: James Borchuck]
    Ellen Fox, 79, admires her graduation gown as she tries it on for the first time Tuesday at her St. Petersburg home. She graduates from the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg on Sunday.

    By BABITA PERSAUD, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published May 4, 2002

    ST. PETERSBURG -- Ellen Fox isn't your typical college student. She has four kids, six grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

    Her favorite elective was ballroom dancing. She carried a burgundy attache to class instead of a backpack. She studied textbooks on her condo's garden balcony and dated guys at the community center.

    One criticized her: "Why do you want to go to school at your age? That's crazy."

    "Well," Fox said. "I want to graduate."

    On Sunday, 79-year-old Ellen Fox, who dropped out of seventh grade to work on the family farm, achieves her goal. She graduates from the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, with a bachelor's degree in business.

    Residents in her St. Petersburg high-rise condominium are abuzz: "Ellen, what are you going to do next?"

    She tells them nothing in particular. She might travel. She might read old Forbes magazines. She might take another computer class because college piqued her interest. She might go into business with her oldest son, a local CPA.

    Fox didn't enroll in college because it was a steppingstone to a $80,000 a year job. Mom and dad didn't demand it.

    She went to enrich herself, she said, and she has realized the power of education.

    As a youngster in rural Fort Smith, Ark., Fox said she didn't appreciate education.

    She was 8 years old when she started school in 1930. She walked 3 miles to school with her two brothers, Paul and Lawrence.

    At 13, she quit and went to work on the family cattle farm. When Fox married, her husband needed her on the chicken farm. She gathered eggs from caged chickens, sold them in town and raised four children. Education wasn't needed.

    Then, one afternoon, her oldest son, Clyde, asked for help on his algebra homework. Mom was lost.

    "It made me feel bad, that I failed him. Right then and there I was determined to go back to school," said Fox.

    She attended County Line High School with her oldest daughter, Virginia. They rode the school bus together and graduated together in 1964. Virginia was 18. Mom was 42.

    Fox went to vocational school after high school.

    An English teacher asked: "What do you want to do when you finish?"

    She said: "I want a nice, clean job."

    And he said: "What's wrong with living on a farm?" He owned a little hobby farm himself.

    "Nothing," said Fox. "But I worked in the dirt all my life. And now, I want something clean."

    She was hired at the local bank, where she spent time filing, typing letters for the bank president, helping customers with loan applications and developing a taste for business.

    Her son Clyde, the CPA, led her to Florida. She enrolled in St. Petersburg Junior College in 1982. She graduated eight years later and enrolled at USF. By then she was 68 years old and retired.

    Fox took two or three courses a semester, keeping up even when she was in and out of the hospital and even when Clyde had a serious motorcycle accident.

    "I didn't see any point in turning back," said Fox.

    She took economics, finance, marketing, two law courses and one really tough auditing class. She took algebra, then calculus.

    "I'd never seen the inside of a book like that before," said Fox, her blue eyes sparkling behind gold-rimmed glasses.

    Fox isn't the only senior senior to graduate from USF. Last May, on USF's Tampa campus, Dorothy Mancini, 79, received a fine arts degree. She is now contemplating graduate school.

    On Sunday, at the Mahaffey Theater at Bayfront Center in St. Petersburg, Fox will flip her tassel from right to left with 320 other students.

    Cheering her on will be her two daughters, a granddaughter, a great-grandson and her 58-year-old son, Clyde, who 41 years ago needed help on his algebra homework.

    Grad facts

    Commencement ceremonies for the University of South Florida will be Saturday for the Tampa campus and Sunday for USF St. Petersburg.

    TAMPA: Saturday at Sun Dome, 4202 E Fowler Ave. 10 a.m. for architecture, arts and sciences and visual and performing arts graduates. 3 p.m. for business education, engineering, nursing, public health and medicine master's and doctorates.

    ST. PETERSBURG: Sunday at the Mahaffey Theater, 400 First Street S. 2 p.m. for all graduates

    Total degrees expected to be awarded at all USF campuses: 3,720

    BACHELOR'S: 2,746

    MASTER'S: 865


    TAMPA CAMPUS: 3,149




    Colleges with the most graduates:


    EDUCATION: 726



    MEDIAN AGE: 26



    YOUNGEST GRADUATE: Amanda Jordan, 19

    OLDEST GRADUATE: Ellen Fox, 79

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