World's oldest bachelor's graduate finishing up graduate work on FHSU campus
Nola's good to go. She has passed her comprehensive finals and turned in her 50-page research paper and will graduate Fort Hays State University with her Master of Liberal Studies in history on May 15. She is 98.
Nobody on campus uses her last name, Ochs, pronounced OHsh. Everybody knows who Nola is -- the oldest person ever to graduate with a bachelor's degree. Soon, of course, she will be the oldest person ever to graduate with a master's degree. The application for Guinness recognition is in the works.
So, how does Nola feel about being known as the oldest graduate?
"I'm very gratified to have attained that distinction," she said. "I would like, in the long run, to encourage people to keep on learning. Our education is never complete."
Asked if it could be called her legacy to serve as an example of perseverance in the pursuit of education, she nodded in agreement. "At home," she said, "I tell my grandchildren, 'If Grandmother can do it, you can.' "
Once, when she enrolled in a computer class at Dodge City Community College, she told her family that if any of them wanted to take it with her, she would pay their tuition. A daughter-in-law and a grandson took her up on it.
"It was real fun," she said. "But I don't think any of us had a computer then." She bought her first one in 1995, she said, by which time she had taken three computer classes.
She was born in Fayette County, Ill., on Nov. 22, 1911. When she was an infant, the family moved to Brown County, Neb. She graduated from the eighth grade (and was salutatorian) and then attended two years of high school in Ainsworth, Neb. She rode a horse to school. She moved to Kansas, to the farm southwest of Jetmore, in 1927 and graduated from high school in Dodge City, 26 miles away, in 1929.
She then became a teacher in a one-room school in Hodgeman County. Her teaching certificate from the state said she could teach as long as she remained single. The reasoning behind that requirement, Nola said, was that it would not be good to have a pregnant woman in the classroom.
She married Vernon Ochs in 1933, so that teaching job ended.
Nola was 95 when, in 2007, she graduated from FHSU with a Bachelor of General Studies with an emphasis in history. Beyond fulfilling her long-time dream of earning a bachelor's degree, this gained her worldwide fame.
Then governor and now U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius showed up to personally hand Nola her diploma. The thousand assembled graduates gave her a standing ovation. She appeared on numerous television and radio shows, including the "Today Show" and an appearance with Jay Leno on "The Tonight Show." It also got her a gig telling stories on a Caribbean cruise ship, which started as a joke she told during one of the many interviews. "Maybe," she said after being asked for the umpteenth time what she planned to do with her degree, "I'll get a job telling stories on a cruise ship." Then Princess Cruise called, and so she did.
This was almost 30 years after resuming her formal education in 1978, when she enrolled in a history class and a beginning tennis class at Dodge City Community College. The education has continued until the present. Back then, in 1978, she was looking for something to occupy her mind and her time. Vernon, her husband of 39 years, had died in 1972, and her four sons were grown.
Later, a professor at DCCC would tell her that she could graduate if she took college algebra. "I remembered algebra from school and thought, 'It wasn't that hard then, I can do it now.' " She graduated in 1988 with an associate degree in general studies.
At graduation this year, about 50 family members from around the world will turn out for Nola. They include a member of the German branch of the family tree, a descendant of the brother who stayed in Frankfort instead of, like Johann Rudolf Ochs, emigrated to the United States. Another will be a granddaughter and her Air Force pilot husband, who will fly in from Honolulu. The Ochs contingent will be wearing Nola T-shirts and carrying American flags to wave at the appropriate moment.
After graduation, she plans to stay here and take another history course that interests her, an online course called "The History of Ideas." The follow-up class, in the fall, is on campus, and she plans on taking that one, as well. She prefers on-campus classes, though she is quite comfortable with online courses. But being on campus with all the other students, "That's where the fun is," she told one interviewer.
One possibility for life after master's involves some teaching. She may stay on and work toward a Master of Arts in history and compete for one of the three graduate teaching assistantships in that department that will be available in the spring 2011.
She hasn't decided past the fall. "I haven't thought that far ahead," she said. "But I will avoid sitting down and twiddling my thumbs." Emphasis on the "will."
Nola is good, and eager, to go.