The sound of dragging, then the tap of the rubber-tipped, three-pronged, metal cane, repeated methodically until after a few moments Ed would appear at my office door, his blue eyes twinkling, cheeks red with exertion. He always had a plastic grocery bag with him, filled with newspaper clippings, and occasionally a toy car for my collection. In 1999, I was Ed’s history professor and academic advisor, and he had become my student at the age of 80, finishing up a bachelor’s degree in history he had begun after completing his service in World War II.
A recent stroke had paralyzed half of his body —hence the need for the cane— but his mind was active, curious, and eager. Twenty years later, Ed turned 100 (June 12, 2019) and his family and friends are celebrating the amazing life he has led so far.
Ed earned both a bachelor’s degree and then his Master of Arts in Public History from Central Connecticut State University while in his 80s. CCSU (and all the state universities) offer free tuition for seniors. After a successful career as the owner of a tool and die and machine business, Ed wanted to pursue a life of the mind. His wife, Adeline, passed away in 1994. They had shared a wonderful life together, raising two children, Jeff and Cheryl. Ever the industrious man, Ed couldn’t sit still.
In particular I remember one summer course I co-taught with Prof. Steve McGrath called “Connecticut Encounters,” in which we toured several historic homes, museums and sites. Ed used a cane but occasionally also needed his wheelchair. When we toured the 17th century Joshua Hempstead house in New London, Ed climbed the narrow staircase to see the top floor. His willpower never ceased to amaze me.
Although Ed took a wide variety of history and general education courses, he was interested in African-American history in particular. Ed loved to learn new things and was genuinely seeking new insights and knowledge. He wanted to understand the Civil Rights movement from a historical perspective. He wrote his senior thesis about slavery. He read widely and always had questions.
One of the challenges in obtaining his BA was that his stroke had affected his ability to pass the level of mathematics he needed for general education. CCSU has an office of Disability Services and students who suffer from an impairment can, with evidence from a doctor, have some requirements waived or substituted. Ed did not want to do that. He had used math his entire life in the machine business. Eventually, though, he conceded that he could not complete the math course. He took an approved alternative, a logic course in Philosophy. It was a great day when he walked across the graduation stage. Little did I imagine he would do it again for master’s.
As his professor and advisor, Ed taught me many things. We often talked about World War II, as my late father had served in the Pacific, and Ed shared his experiences and reflections on the war. Ed’s thoughtful questions about the subjects I taught led me to dig deeper into various avenues. I also became more aware of how to help non-traditional students. I learned how to listen better for cues about what students needed but were unwilling to ask for. I discovered all sorts of university offices and services available for students, and all kinds of rules in the university, that assisted me in assisting students, and found out our university has some excellent support for students of all kinds. Ed also reached out to other students. Another elderly student, Amelia Williams, who was then in her 90s, was taking three buses to get to CCSU for her courses; Ed gave her information about a service that could bring her to campus and he met with her a few times to chat about their shared endeavors.
Ed’s exceptionally long life is doubtless the product of a strong Swedish constitution and a healthy lifestyle. But the splendor of that long life is more than just good genes. It’s a fierce determination to never give up, a burning curiosity to know more, see more, do more. I think my other students and advisees, past and present, will understand when I say that Ed is and will forever be my favorite. He seized his opportunities, and he did his duty. He has lived honorably, productively, and beautifully. Happy birthday, Ed—and many more!
Katherine Hermes is a Professor of History at Central Connecticut State University.