Woman Graduates From College At Age 85 -- And Gets A Job

Willadene Zedan holding two infantsBy Jane Gross

The employment market being what it is for newly minted college graduates, Willadene Zedan would stand out at Saturday's commencement at Marian University in Fond du Lac, Wisc., if only for the fact that she'll begin the job of her dreams just four days later: Accompanying a local doctor on house calls to the homebound elderly.

But Zedan, at age 85, is already the reluctant celebrity of Marian's class of 2013. She's proof that it's never too late to do the things you didn't get to do in the prime of life and that "lifelong learning" is more than hackneyed happy-talk. In the days leading up to graduation, with exams and papers behind her, Zedan did not head for the beach with a six-pack to celebrate as other undergraduates might. Rather she toiled in the kitchen of the home she shares with one of her daughters, Elizabeth Zedan, a minister, and her son-in-law, Thomas Richardson, chairman of Marian's chemistry department.

With five children, 15 grandchildren (one a nursing student at Marian, despite having four children of her own) and 26 great-grandchildren assembling for the big event, Zedan was preparing a banquet. "If I demanded the whole bunch of them show up, it's the least I can do," she says. "Some way to insist on a family reunion, isn't it?"

Zedan's college education began tentatively, when she audited a single class in 1999 at age 71. She had recently moved to Wisconsin from rural Gaylord, Mich. -– "no man's land," she calls it, with church, shopping and volunteer opportunities all at least a half-hour's drive from home –- after the death of her husband, Joe. In their 50 years of marriage, she had never itched for a college education, being more than content to raise a big family, run a gift shop, manage the banquet hall at a golf club, lead Girl Scout and Boy Scout troops and, as a convert to Catholicism, explore the contours of her religious faith.

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Joe, a retired mechanic, died of a heart attack while puttering at a home repair job. Willa, as he called his wife, was driving home from Ash Wednesday church services. At first, she stayed put in remote Gaylord, observing her other widowed friends do little but watch soap operas on television, complain about aches and pains, and seem to grow dottier with every passing day. This, Zedan says unsparingly, was not how she intended to live out her days.

So, without apparent regret, she relocated to Fond du Lac, where both church and mall were within a 10-minute drive of her daughter's home. She had no firm plans except "to keep my mind alert." Marian University, founded by an order of nuns, but now a more broadly based liberal arts school with 2,600 combined undergraduate and graduate students, was a promising place to do that. Zedan had some trepidation about whether she was up for the rigors of college coursework. Auditing her first class erased that worry. She made the acquaintance of another older woman on campus who had been auditing classes for years. Zedan, a no-nonsense sort, realized that if she went that route, "I'd have kicked myself" if she later found that she would have had enough credits to graduate had she actually matriculated.

So Zedan added a class at a time and, finally, as many as four in a semester. During her years at Marian, where she majored in theology, it became clear to her that she was doing more than just exercising her brain, as she might with crossword puzzles. "I was preparing myself for a new career," she says, one she hoped would allow her to visit those not blessed with her good health in old age and encourage them to be as physically and mentally active as their situation allowed.

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Zedan's classmates were kind and friendly, she says, shouting greetings from across the campus and holding doors open for her without making her feel like "a baggy old lady." But they were hardly her pals, she says, nor would that have been appropriate. She had little time for campus parties in any case. When she wasn't in class or studying, her time was spent with family. Every Wednesday, for example, she babysat for the children of her granddaughter the nursing student. Extracurricular activities? Just one: the Honor Society.

Her professors were her allies, she says, and have told her that her active participation in class would be missed. "The kids, to their disadvantage, are afraid to speak up," Zedan says. "They thought I didn't give a rip," she says, about sounding clever or always getting the answers right. "And I didn't. The teachers say they'll miss my input. Maybe I'll come back and haunt them."

That attitude, of needing to satisfy nobody but yourself, is a wonderfully liberating part of old age and it pervades Zedan's life. For example, she's a reluctant member of Facebook, with an account created by one of her sons. But until a recent flurry of pre-graduation hullaballoo, her social media activity was minimal, reflecting an attitude toward the site and its routines that she expressed in this posting on her page:
I am on face book because son Tom put me on, however, I refuse to become a slave to it. I do not own a camera – so will never have pictures to share, I leave that to others. I would love to hear from all of you when you have some news. From some of you, I would enjoy hearing what you have been doing the last few years, what you have made or are making of your lives. I have no desire to know what you are having for dinner or how that baby is growing within you ... the process remains, generally, the same.

If I have made you a friend (what a word, in life we rarely have more than one or two who are willing to give their all for us) it is because I am sincerely interested in you, your life and family – not the general nonsense, just the important things.

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In conversation, while being tactful enough not to name names, Zedan made it clear that the instruction about pregnancy updates was directed at more than one family member, who like so many of their generation think that every kick or gurgle is worth sharing.

Her college experience, she says, while largely extolled by her enormous family, has prompted some discomfort for a few other members of the younger generation. Some of her grandchildren, she says, have been rebuked by their parents for bringing home less-than-stellar grades with comments like, "My mother's on the dean's list. If Grandma can do it, why can't you?"

Zedan's job offer came from her own doctor during a recent checkup when talk turned to her imminent graduation. He asked if she'd consider accompanying him on visits to the homebound -– starting next Wednesday. Surprised and delighted, she never even asked if he intended to pay her, nor does she much care.

"My body tells me I'm growing old," she says, "and I assume that when I've pushed the Lord as far as I can push him, one day he'll give me one swift kick. But in the meantime -- and if I'm lucky, that could be till I'm 100 -- I'll be doing what I was trained to do. When I get to the other side, I want to be able to say I used the talent I was given."

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I am sure she will be one of the best employees he's ever acquired. Hard work as a virtue seems to be a dying idea.

June 23 2013 at 3:42 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

My 86 year old mother passed away on January 29th--at my home and in my arms. I miss her terribly but she had the best passing one could have..She was a go-getter until dementia set in a few years ago. She retired at 78 and was in great physical health. Her 2 greatest fears were acquiring something that would cause a painful death and getting to point, with her dementia, where she couldn't be recognize her children. Neither of those things happened. She was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer during last Thanksgiving week. The good news--it was located at the bottom of the pancreas, where it is rarely painful. She passed in no pain and knowing who I was. It gave me great joy to read about you today. My mother would have loved this story. Good luck to you in your new career--you'll be great. Beth Nicholas, Newport Beach, California

May 29 2013 at 10:19 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

85 And graduated and got a job ! I was thinking she was a liberal for sure... Until I seen she got a job, and then I knew she could not be a liberal.

May 29 2013 at 7:54 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to pfwd21's comment

Why would you think she was a liberal?

June 23 2013 at 3:41 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I'm not sure, but I think a friend of mine said that after she turned 65, her college education would be FREE. Makes a big difference when one has thousands of dollars in school loans to pay back and can only find minimum wage jobs. She must be getting SS, and sharing expenses with family members makes a difference between having to work to pay the bills (stressful) and working because it's keeping her mind alert and busy (fun)........

May 29 2013 at 2:49 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to staceyk's comment

stacey, how or why, would being over 65 make their education be free?

May 29 2013 at 3:34 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
3 replies to anyteampa's comment

staceyk your friend is nuts.

May 29 2013 at 5:22 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to ladywindsor1's comment

She's just turned 65 and has been a part time student for the last decade. That's what she told me while thinking of finishing her education by holding off until she turned 65.

May 29 2013 at 8:35 PM Report abuse rate up rate down

What an inspirational story! She is amazing. Education is not just for the young. Maybe if young people were half as committed to their goals (if they have any) as she is ...they would find a job. Get off the cell phones/Facebook. Stop looking at others lives and make one for yourself.

May 25 2013 at 8:30 AM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply

Great take a spot from a young person who wants an education and then a job from one that needs a job.

May 25 2013 at 3:47 AM Report abuse -10 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to sammy7851's comment

Are you serious, sammy?

May 29 2013 at 3:36 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Freddy De Joint

GOD bless her,

May 25 2013 at 3:11 AM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

85 and she gets a job? I'm a 64 year old elementary teacher who can't buy myself a job.

May 24 2013 at 7:14 PM Report abuse -3 rate up rate down Reply

Most 85 yrs olds,are resorting to R.I.P..

May 24 2013 at 4:08 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply

good for her,she can find a job anyone can,no excuses.

May 24 2013 at 2:05 PM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to beverlyamy1's comment

The article stated her doctor offered her the job. Looking for a job and someone offering you a job are two different things. With all the college grads working menial jobs, employers have become very selective.

May 25 2013 at 6:26 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

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