79-Year-old Coed Who Dropped Out in 1949 Finally Graduates

Shirley Burns dropped out of Iowa State to marry engineering student Vic Smith in 1949. They lived in married student housing until he graduated. Last year, they returned from Oregon to Iowa State (and to married student housing) so she could finish what she started.iowa state, Shirley Burns, nontraditional studentOn Dec. 19, the 79-year-old Smith will receive her diploma–60 years after she left school.

At 79, Shirley Smith isn’t the oldest person to graduate from Iowa State University (three have been older), but she’s probably the most enthusiastic. After all, she has waited 60 years to cross the stage, claim her diploma and shout, “Yippee!”

When Smith finished her sophomore year in 1949, Harry Truman was president; Stalin ruled the Soviet Union and Duke Ellington played the Memorial Union. The bobby-soxer coed dropped out of Iowa State that year to marry chemical engineering student Vic Smith.

The newlyweds lived in Pammel Court married student housing until Vic earned his degree in 1950. With a new baby girl (the first of seven daughters), they headed west to Washington “where the jobs were at the time.”

Smith worked as a realtor for 34 years and raised her family (“having five teen-age girls at the same time was not a good thing!”). She became a grandmother, then a great-grandmother. A few years ago, she retired from real estate. Through all the years and momentous life events that come with being a wife and mother, Smith never lost her desire to finish what she’d started at Iowa State. 

”From the time I left school, I always wanted to come back. I wanted the degree,” Smith said.

On one of their annual trips back to Iowa to visit family (Shirley is from Marathon; Vic from Maloy), Smith talked to academic advisor Bruce Allen in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. She learned that 89 of her credits from the 1940s would count toward a degree, allowing her to return to Iowa State as a junior.

In August 2008, Smith told family and friends she and Vic were closing up their home in Oregon to move into married student housing at Iowa State so she could finish her degree. They were stunned.

“They said, ‘Oh Shirley, you’re crazy!’ or ‘College? I could NEVER do that,’ ” Smith said. “I told them: ‘I can!’”

A kid in a candy store
 when Smith faces a week in which five papers are due, however, she has her doubts.
“One week I’ll think, ‘I just can’t do this anymore — it’s just too much work. And the next week, I’m fine again,” she said.

It took about six weeks to “really figure out how to study,” she said. In her first test, she got a D+ and was “devastated.” Her grades improved when she figured out she needed to take better notes in class.

“My kids told me that all I have to do is pass,” Smith said. “But that’s just not me. I’m driven!”

Smith admits it probably takes her longer to write a paper or study for a test than it does her classmates. And she doesn’t “do well after 11 p.m.”

With the exception of a required pre-calculus class (“the worst thing I’ve ever done in my life”), Smith has thoroughly enjoyed her studies.

“I’ve been able to pick and choose any class I’ve wanted to take,” Smith said, with the reverence of a child in a candy store. “It’s been fabulous!”

She reels off the classes with delight: “Sociology … two psychology courses (that was enough psychology) … then a housing class … business communications … Civil War (because I love learning about the Civil War) … sex and gender … another housing class … human sexuality … aging … antebellum history (it was a bit harder because of the Blue Book tests — I hadn’t taken one for 60 years)… 1800s history … the Holocaust (that was a fabulous course) … family communication … and death as part of living.”

Pages: 1 2