May: the month of mothers and graduates

I’m writing this on May 7, my late mother Ruth’s birthday. It seems fitting to write a column remembering her today. She was born in 1920, 104 years ago.

May is the month we honor mothers and the month when college students don their mortar boards, putting the crowning touch on their academic careers. So, my column is doing double duty this month: honoring my mother and her college career.

Mom started college later than most of her peers. She graduated high school in 1938 but didn’t start classes at Vincennes University until 1957.

Ruth was a young widow at the time, raising three daughters alone following my father’s untimely death in 1955. She was luckier than many widows of that era. She had enough money to get by on, but no clue what to do with her life. We finally landed in her hometown of Washington, Indiana in 1956. It was our third move in a year. I guess she hoped moving home would settle her life.

One afternoon, she accepted an invitation to hear Dr. Isaac Beckes — then President of Vincennes University — speak at a local women’s club. As she listened to Dr. Beckes sing the praises of VU, a light bulb went off in her head. Maybe she could go to college. At the end of the program, as she waited in line to talk with him, she mustered up her courage. “Dr. Beckes, am I too old to go to college?” He shook her hand, gave her a big smile and answered, “No, not at all. Call my office for an appointment. Let’s talk!”

So began her higher education. Mother was the first one in her family to attend college. She grew up poor, as most did during the Depression. Her parents only went to school through eighth grade. My grandparents considered college a waste of time; only meant for rich kids. So, for Mom, like other young girls back then, her future was a job and hopefully marriage.

Dr. Beckes and the professors at VU treated Mother like family. It was a very small school then and the faculty and staff made generous accommodations for Mother’s situation. I remember sitting in classes with her sometimes after school.

For most students, higher education is the key to a good career and financial security. For Mother, it was a lifesaver. Mom became a true believer. She talked up VU to anyone who would listen…especially to young kids of little means; the ones who didn’t think college was attainable. My sisters and I were embarrassed by her proselytizing. We often rolled our eyes when she started praising VU.

It took me well into adulthood to understand the lifeline Vincennes was for Mother. After she finished VU, Mom got a master’s degree in Sociology from IU and continued taking occasional classes, well into her 60’s.

VU came to mind again recently when I heard my friend Ro Whittington and her husband Shorty (founder of Grammer Industries,) were donating $750,000.00 to the university. Per the school website, their generous gift “will bolster faculty support and foster agricultural innovation.” The Whittington’s philanthropic philosophy follows the Biblical adage, “To whom much is given, much is required,” (Luke 12:48), and as Shorty Whittington likes to put it, ‘If you give, you get.’”

Higher education takes a village, including dedicated faculty, generous donors and eager students. Congratulations and best wishes to this spring’s college graduates!

Grads, before you throw your mortarboards skyward this year, take time to thank those who helped you succeed: your families, teachers and mentors … and someday, if you’re able, be like the Whittington’s: pay it forward!

Sharon Mangas is a Columbus resident and can be reached at [email protected]. Send comments to [email protected].