Education milestone

Nola Ochs, 98, of Jetmore, Kan., receives congratulations from Fort Hays State University President Edward H. Hammond after receiving her master’s degree in liberal studies during the university’s commencement May 15.

Raymond Hillegas

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Nola Ochs never set out to break any records.

She figured she'd just take a few college courses, give herself a little something to do.

Yet there she was three years ago, walking across the stage at Fort Hays State University and into the history books.

At 95, she became the world's oldest college graduate, a title she held until a 96-year-old man in Taiwan nabbed it from her last year.

Well, here Nola goes again.

On May 15, with gobs of family members in the audience wearing gray T-shirts sporting her name and waving the American flags she requested, the great-grandmother of 15 got her master's degree. Don't forget, she's 98 now.

"For some reason, I really enjoy walking across that platform and receiving an award," Ochs said in a recent telephone interview from her one-bedroom apartment on the fringe of the Fort Hays campus in western Kansas. "Maybe I'm a little vain -- I don't want to be, but maybe I am."

Of course, she's joking. Those who know her say it's not about vanity at all.

"She's the classic example of a person who learns for the love of learning," said Kent Steward, a spokesman with Fort Hays State University.

"She has just absolutely blossomed in this setting," Steward said.

When her husband died in 1972, Ochs said she started preparing to die. She just figured with him gone, she'd be gone soon, too.

But the grandma from Jetmore, Kan., was still around five years later when she decided to try a tennis course at Dodge City Community College. Being around the other students, teens barely one-fourth her age, Ochs got a feel for college life.

So she kept taking classes. Enough for an associate degree, and then she left her farm in Jetmore and headed to Fort Hays for a bachelor's.

History professor Raymond Wilson had Ochs for a couple of undergraduate classes and in the past three years was her adviser in graduate school.

She does everything the other students do. The long papers, the 50-page mini-thesis, class presentations.

"She's one of the top graduate students we have," Wilson said. "And it's not like having a know-it-all in class or anything like that. As soon as she opens her mouth, everyone listens."

Days before she received her undergraduate diploma in 2007, reporters quizzed the great-grandmother on where she'd go from there. Settle back on the farm? Relax a little?

Maybe, Ochs said, she'd be a storyteller on a cruise ship. Again, she was joking.

Then a cruise line called and sent her and her granddaughter, who graduated from Fort Hays with her, on a cruise to the Caribbean.

During the cruise, Ochs told stories of her life to vacationers.

She laughed.

"I tell people, 'Eat your carrots. Eat your spinach. The 90s are great.' "

So, we have to ask it again. After getting her master's degree in liberal studies with a history concentration, what's next?

"Oh, you won't believe it," Ochs said last week.

"I've enrolled in a summer class. And a couple classes for the fall."