Spry Septuagenarian Eyes Commencement
When she earned a master’s degree in English from Eastern Kentucky University in 1989, Marjorie Farris was caring for her cancer-stricken husband and unable to participate in fall commencement exercises.
Joe Farris Jr. passed away on the date of the next May commencement.
Now, a quarter-century later, with a boundless energy and youthful spirit that belies her nearly 78 years of age, a determined Farris is once again set to roll her wheelchair across an EKU commencement stage – this time to receive a master’s degree in history on May 15.
This is hardly the first time that Farris, of Richmond, has proven skeptics wrong. When she contracted polio as a baby in Iowa, her parents were told she would never sit up or walk. She took her first steps in a garbage can filled with water, drawn twice a day from the well on her family farm and heated on a wood-burning stove.
Later in life, Farris hobbled around on crutches for approximately 30 years, but that didn’t stop her from teaching (elementary school and then EKU English classes part time for nine years) or from serving a church or as the local Project Read director. For the past several years, she has driven her specially-equipped van to campus, found convenient parking along University Drive and wheeled herself to nearby classes, typically in the Keith Building.
Whatever the weather or other obstacles, you could always count on Farris to be there.
“My comfort zone,” she said, “is anything having to do with learning. It’s the food that keeps me going. Here at EKU, you get the feeling that everyone is on the same page. Everyone wants to learn.”
And it hasn’t cost her a dime of tuition. The O’Donnell Scholarship at EKU allows anyone 65 and over to take college courses tuition-free – they still pay for books, course fees and supplies.
Though she’s generally at least three times their age, Farris is finding common ground with her younger classmates. And they are finding Farris to be something of a resource in addition to the professor.
“Some have voiced the fact that I can talk about things that happened long before they were born,” she chuckled. “It’s enjoyable to be in class with much younger students. They give me energy and they’ve always been very courteous and respectful to me.”
In fact, they are part of a broad support system for Farris that also includes her family – her daughter Ashley and son-in-law Mike both have doctoral degrees and teach in Vancouver, British Columbia – EKU faculty and the staff at John Grant Crabbe Main Library, where she’s a familiar face. “I didn’t do this myself,” she said. “My professors and all my family and friends have encouraged me.”
History Professor Dr. Tom Appleton, who directed Farris’ master’s thesis, said it works both ways.
“Marjorie brings a unique perspective to the classroom,” Appleton said. “Students – and faculty – enjoy hearing her perspective on events she has lived through or witnessed. It is one thing for me to lecture about the Cuban Missile Crisis, for example, but it makes it so much more personal when students can hear directly from someone who lived through those dangerous days. Marjorie is blessed to have a keen memory and the ability to express herself beautifully in both oral and written form.”
As for her late husband, “I think he would be real pleased that I’ve been able to go on since then,” she said. “He was always in favor of more education.”
And Farris, who turns 78 in June, isn’t stopping with this degree. After graduation, she plans to take courses in EKU’s Women and Gender Studies program, though not for another degree.
“I think everyone could become a lifelong learner,” she said. “It gives you something to think about.”
Anyone 65 and older thinking about becoming an O’Donnell Scholar is encouraged to contact Amanda McCracken at 859-622-8032 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.