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Laura Thresher Johnston
Earns Degree At 85

Laura Thresher Johnston
Laura Thresher Johnston

Laura Thresher Johnston, who will receive her bachelor of arts degree Saturday from Sam Houston State University, has a good memory.

She remembers as a little girl in Massachusetts hearing hunters shooting in the woods near her home and thinking, "those Germans are getting awful close."

Little Laura Thresher's anxiety was not a child's fear of World War II. It was of World War I. She is now 85, almost 86, and on Saturday will become the oldest person ever to receive a Sam Houston State degree.

Successfully completing all requirements for the degree for which she has been studying for the past 12 years is only one of many remarkable things about Laura Thresher Johnston.

"Laura is not obsessed with her chronological age," said David Ross Gerling, associate professor of foreign languages. "She is positively obsessed with her gift of health. She has a forward-looking outlook."

"I've never felt old," said Johnston. "I look in the mirror and can't believe that's me."

Johnston comes from a family that goes back to the early days of the New England Pilgrim colony. Born September 3, 1915, she was a year old when her father died. She was put into an orphanage briefly and then went to live with an aunt and uncle.

Aside from her fear of the Germans, her early memories were of her uncle Dudley losing his money in the stock market crash of 1929, of movie stars like Janet Gaynor, Eddie Cantor and Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and the "terrible depression."

Despite having no money, she said, they lived well. They had 15 acres, half filled with wild and planted fruit. Her aunt made her clothes from burlap bags and she acquired their cheerful perspective.

She remembers wanting to go to a dance, but being embarrassed by the holes in her shoes. Her uncle made her some cardboard inserts, and gave her some advice.

"Of course you can go," he told her. "When they look at your face they will never notice your feet."

She earned a degree in nursing in 1936 and worked in the field for 30 years. She married and had three daughters--Jean, Jannelle, and Jeannette. She also has eight grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren.

At the age of 55, when many slow down, she moved to Florida and started a new career. She became a waitress. It took her awhile to learn things like how to take an order and how many different ways steaks could be cooked, but she became pretty good at it, and loved the Miami Beach area.

"I made excellent money," she said, "and squandered every bit of it."

When she moved to Florida she heard Spanish being spoken for the first time. "'That's so pretty,'" she remembers thinking. "'I want to learn it.'"

Her daughter decided to move to Texas because of her husband's job, and had to strongly encourage her mother to come along. Her daughter, Jannelle Lofton, and granddaughter, Laura Gill, both earned degrees from Sam Houston State.

When her grandchildren began taking Spanish, she so aggravated them trying to learn what they knew about the language that her daughter gave her another strong suggestion--"Go learn it for yourself."

At first, in 1988, she thought she'd sit in on a few Spanish classes, which is allowed if space is available, but said it was "a heck of a lot more difficult than I thought it was."

For awhile she paid full tuition and fees, but in 1995 the Texas Legislature passed a law that exempted seniors (65 and over) from tuition, providing space is available in classes they wish to take.

She took classes for no credit for two years, then decided, "If I can pass these classes, I might as well try for a degree."

She also met David Ross Gerling. "Expand your horizons," Gerling told her.

So in 1990 she began taking the courses for credit, repeating some when necessary to get a full grasp of the material. In 1992, when a faculty member could not take a group on a scheduled summer study program in Guadalajara, Mexico, she did.

"'She made us walk everywhere,'" she remembers the students complaining.

She also traveled on her own one summer to Madrid, Spain, where she hung out in a cafe that Gerling said is frequented by some of Europe's toughest truck drivers.

She has also traveled all over the United States by herself in a camper, picking up hitchhikers occasionally. She visits a Huntsville nursing home regularly, and drives herself the 30 miles from her home at Point Blank east of Huntsville to the Sam Houston State campus.

One day recently she complained about being a little late, "because the people around here don't know how to drive over 50."

In addition to getting considerable exercise walking the hilly campus, she swims in Lake Livingston, despite being warned by friends of the lake's alligators and water moccasins.

"I haven't been bitten yet," she said. "So why worry."

When not in class, she helped Gerling with simple paper grading chores. And his pupil also became his teacher.

"I had to adopt him," she said. She calls him "high strung," and said she counsels him because "he was getting upset about things he shouldn't get upset about."

Gerling said she has been as valuable in the classroom as she has been with her administrative help and personality-calming suggestions.

"She was an adviser to the students--a mother figure to many," he said. "Laura was a living resource."

Students who were struggling with classes would look at her and decide that if she could do it, they could too, he said. She was just another student acting out the language-learning skits that Gerling uses in his classes. The younger students invited her into their homes and apartments and on trips.

"Laura, in her own life, personifies lifelong education," Gerling said. "She showed them how to be more sensitive to needs of different kinds of people. She really loved those students and the students loved her."

Gerling said that Johnston is well trained in her major discipline of Spanish, and if she wants to, could work in the same kinds of jobs for which her younger classmates are training.

"She can survive," he said. "She's ready to go out there and get any job she wants."

So what's next for Laura Thresher Johnston, after she walks across the Johnson Coliseum stage at 2 p.m. Saturday to become the oldest person to receive a Sam Houston State University degree?

Next week, she said, she plans to apply for graduate school to study for her master's degree in history.

- END -

SHSU Media Contact: Frank Krystyniak
May 2, 2001
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