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, she’ll be what is believed to 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. It gave me a feeling of satisfaction. 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
“We should all be so lucky and do such amazing things. Her achievement challenges us all to reach for our own goals and dreams,” said Tom Nelson, AARP chief operating officer in Washington.
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 and this part of the state. Good people live here,” she said. “And I still wear the same size hat.
“But she added: “I don’t dwell on my age. It might limit what I can do. As long as I have my mind and health, it’s just a number.
“Ochs is proudest of being the matriarch of a family that includes three sons — a fourth died in 1995 — along with 13 grandchildren and 15 great grandchildren.
“They’re all such fine boys,” she said. “Our main crop is our children, and the farm is a good place to raise them.
“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 the 100 miles from her farm southwest of Jetmore to an apartment on campus to complete the final 30 hours to get a general studies degree with an emphasis on history.
At 5-foot-2, her white hair pulled into a bun, she walks purposely down hallways to classes with her books in a cloth tote bag. Students nod and smile; she’s described as witty, charming and down to earth.
“Everybody has accepted me, and I feel just like another student,” she said. “The students respect me.
“Coming out of a classroom, Skyla Foster, a junior majoring in history, sees Ochs and calls out to her. To everyone on campus, she’s “Nola,” not Mrs. Ochs — and that’s the way she wants it.
“She is pretty neat, a very interesting person and very knowledgeable,” Foster said.
Todd Leahy, history department chairman, wondered at first if Ochs could keep up with the other students. After her second week, all doubts were gone, as he discovered she could provide tidbits of history.
Leahy, who had Ochs in four classes, wants to record oral histories with her after she graduates.
“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 in class, but she brought it up and we talked about it,” Leahy said. “She often adds color to the face of history.
” Ochs hasn’t complained about the work, nor has she asked for special considerations.
In her one-bedroom apartment, books are open and papers and notes are within easy reach when she sits down at her computer to research and write.
“I came up here with that purpose. No, I never doubted it. Other people did it,” she said. “I came up here to work, and I enjoy it.
” Ochs said she has learned new things. She said she has attained a better understanding of Russian history and the role Dwight Eisenhower played in the D-Day invasion.
An added joy for Ochs is that her 21-year-old granddaughter, Alexandra Ochs, will graduate with her.
“How many people my age have a chance to hang out with their grandmothers? She’s really accepted by the other students,” Alexandra said. “They enjoy her, but probably not as much as I do.
” Ochs said she looks forward to getting home to help with the wheat harvest, as she has done every year for as long as she can remember. After harvest, she might travel or take more classes at a community college.
After that? “I’m going to seek employment on a cruise ship as a storyteller,” she said, smiling. The determined look in her eye leaves no doubt she’s serious.
CARL MANNING, Associated Press Writer April 2007