April 23, 2010
USA: She's 94 and ready to graduate from college
. SAN FRANCISCO, California / The San Francisco Chronicle / Education / News / April 23, 2010 By Chip Johnson I'd like to suggest that a dictionary publisher consider placing a photo of San Leandro resident Hazel Soares in its next updated edition, right next to the definition of the word "perseverance."She has earned it. Soares, now 94, has been married twice, raised six kids, seen two economic depressions, 15 U.S. presidents and two world wars. She's been a working single mother, a nurse, a concert event organizer and an art lover. She has more than 40 grandchildren. Hazel Soares, 94, a month away from graduation at Mills College, takes notes during her Egyptian art history class. Paul Chinn/The Chronicle And next month, at the 2010 commencement ceremonies for Mills College, Soares will become a college graduate, 78 years after her high school graduation from then-Roosevelt High School in East Oakland. In 1982, she was one of five classmates who showed up for a 50-year reunion. "She's always had a book in her hand, or off to the opera or the symphony or the ballet - anything that stimulates the mind," said son Matt Soares, 59, of Springfield, Ore. Soares just might qualify as the second-oldest student in the world to ever earn a college degree. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Nola Ochs, 95, is the oldest person to ever graduate from college. Ochs graduated with a history degree from Fort Hays State University in Fort Hays, Kan., in 2007. And what could also be a record of sorts, Soares paid for her education at Mills with benefits provided by her late husband Ellsworth Soares' GI benefits - from World War II. But setting records isn't what motivated Soares to renew her lifelong quest for education when she enrolled at Chabot Community College in the mid-1980s. "I've always had a basic curiosity about how to do things, whether it's a (cooking) recipe or identifying pieces of art in historical context," she said. Born in Richmond on June 21, 1915, Soares traces her interest in art history back to age 11 and the impression made on her the first time she saw Michelangelo's "David" in the Book of Knowledge, a precursor to the World Book Encyclopedia series. In 1996, at age 80, she traveled to Florence, Italy, to see the sculpture for herself. She is a member and patron of the Asian, Modern and De Young museums in San Francisco and the Oakland Museum of California. Soares settled on an art history major when she transferred to Mills College in 2005, but there was one big academic hurdle she had to overcome to reach her goal: math. Because she could not prove successful completion of high school algebra, she was required to successfully complete an upper-division math class before she could move on - and it was a bear. "It was 2000 before I got that diploma - and I worked like heck to get that thing," she said. At Mills, many of her classes were electives and she settled right into the twice-weekly class schedule and campus life - for the next five years. And when it comes to the campus social cliques, Soares said she has found closer friends among the faculty than most of her classmates have. Soares used libraries as her primary source of information while a daughter living in Pennsylvania provided her with computer research support. And if anyone even considers the notion that Soares plans to rest on her academic laurels after graduation next month, forget about it. The first thing she is going to do is resume the daily swimming routines she began at the age of 65. Then she plans to start looking for a job where she can use the skills and knowledge she acquired at the prestigious, private women's undergraduate college. Hazel Soares walks to one of her final classes in art history at Mills College, where she will graduate in May at age 94. Photo: Paul Chinn / The Chronicle "I'd like to be a docent in a museum," Soares said. "I have the endurance and I would totally put my heart into it," she said. "I've put in my time and I do have the background for this kind of work, you know." And if a prospective employer has concerns about attendance or getting to and from work, it's not a problem. Soares still drives and she is as healthy as a horse. She takes no prescription medicine. "I go to the doctor about once every three years to make sure I'm OK, and my doctor says he doesn't know what makes me tick," she said. "He just congratulates me." It may also be appropriate for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the keynote speaker at the Mill's commencement ceremonies, to issue a personal congratulation. Like I said, she's earned it. [rc] © 2010 Hearst Communications Inc.