Health & Wellness

May 21, 2013

85-Year-Old Graduates From College, Finds Job


Willadene Zedan is leaving Marian University on Saturday with a bachelor’s degree, academic honors and a job offer.

By Jane Gross | May 20, 2013
Contributor PhotoJane Gross, a retired correspondent for The New York Times and the founder of its blog, The New Old Age, is the author of A Bittersweet Season: Caring for Our Aging Parents – and Ourselves (Knopf 2011, Vintage 2012).

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, Wis., 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.

(MORE: Why I Went Back to College)

But Zedan, at the age of 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.

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.
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