tampabay.com

At 95, a graduating senior

Nola Ochs witnessed history, then studied it. When she graduates, she'll make it.

By ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published April 28, 2007


HAYS, Kan.

Sitting on the front row in her college classes carefully taking notes, Nola Ochs is just as likely to answer questions as to ask them.

That's not the only thing distinguishing her from fellow students at Fort Hays State University. She's 95, and when she graduates May 12, it is believed she will be the world's oldest person to be awarded a college degree.

She didn't plan it that way. She just loved to learn as a teenager on a Hodgeman County farm, then as a teacher at a one-room school after graduating from high school and later as a farm wife and mother.

"That yearning for study was still there. I came here with no thought of it being an unusual thing at all, " she said. "It was something I wanted to do. I like to study and learn."

The record Ochs will break, according to Guinness World Records, belongs to Mozelle Richardson, who at age 90 in 2004 received a journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma.

She's getting offers for television appearances, and reporters show up wanting to interview her. She acknowledges enjoying it.

"It brings attention to this college, " she said. "And I still wear the same size hat."

Ochs started taking classes at Dodge City Community College after her husband of 39 years, Vernon, died in 1972. A class here and there over the years, and she was close to having enough hours for an undergraduate degree.

Last fall, Ochs moved 100 miles from her farm near Jetmore to an apartment on campus to complete the final 30 hours to get a general studies degree with an emphasis on history. She hopes to get a job on a cruise ship as a storyteller.

Todd Leahy, history department chairman, wondered at first if Ochs could keep up. After her second week, all doubts were gone, as he discovered she could provide tidbits of history.

"I can tell them about it, but to have Nola in class adds a dynamic that can't be topped, " Leahy said. "It's a firsthand perspective you seldom get."

For instance, Ochs offered recollections of the 1930s Midwest dust bowl, when skies were so dark that lamps were lit during the day and wet sheets were placed over windows to keep out dust that sounded like pelting sleet hitting the house.

During a discussion about World War II, Ochs told how she and her husband, along with other wheat farmers in the area, grew soybeans on some of their acres for the war effort.

"I would have never talked about that, but she brought it up and we talked about it, " Leahy said. "She often adds color to the face of history."