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Laura Thresher Johnston Earns Master's at Age 90

Laura Hooded

Johnston receives her master's hood from Dean Terry Thibodeaux.

--Photo by Frank Krystyniak

She's white haired, bright eyed, and only about five feet tall, but the best way to describe 90-year-old Laura Thresher Johnston is "inspirational."

On December 17 Johnston became the oldest Sam Houston State student to receive a degree, accepting her master of arts in history during ceremonies in Johnson Coliseum. Four years ago she completed a bachelor's degree in Spanish.

Her accomplishments have made headlines throughout the United States, the result of two stories by the Associated Press. Recently she appeared in television news features in Houston and Bryan/College Station.

Johnston's late and long educational journey at Sam Houston State started when she was 73. She became interested in Spanish when she first heard it being spoken in Florida, when she was 55.  

"'That's so pretty,'" she remembers thinking. "'I want to learn it.'" When her grandchildren began taking Spanish it rekindled her interest, and she decided to do something about it.

Laura Camera

Johnston is interviewed by KPRC-TV (Channel 2) in Houston.

--Photo by Frank Krystyniak

She was living in Point Blank, east of Huntsville, and drove the 30 miles over to Sam Houston State. She asked a receptionist what she had to do to get into a Spanish class. The lady pointed the way to a classroom where David Gerling was lecturing.

Johnston asked him if she could attend his class. "Sit down," he told her in Spanish, she was smart enough to figure that out, and did. Thirteen years later, at the age of 85, she completed her bachelor's degree.

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

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."

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.

Laura Johnston
Johnston during her undergraduate days.

--Photo by Frank Krystyniak

After she began taking courses for credit, she had to repeat some to get a full grasp of the material.

She also volunteered in the foreign languages office, occasionally helping Gerling with simple paper-grading. 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, to hear and speak Spanish as it is actually used, and where she hung out in a cafe that Gerling said is frequented by some of Europe's toughest truck drivers.

That was really no problem, since she has also traveled all over the United States by herself in a camper, picking up hitchhikers occasionally.

Johnston comes from a family that goes back to the early days of the New England Pilgrim colony. Born Sept. 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.

Johnston admits that some aspects of earning the master's in history was easy for her, because she has lived so much of it. Some of her early memories are 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."

She remembers hearing hunters firing guns in the woods near where she lived, and thinking, "those Germans are getting awful close." That timeframe was the first World War, not the second.

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

Once she wanted to go to a dance, but was embarrassed by the holes in her shoes. Her uncle made her some cardboard inserts, and told her not to worry.

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

She graduated from high school in 1933, 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 some people move to Florida to retire and rust, she moved there 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."

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.

She has fit in well with younger students.

"She was an adviser to the students--a mother figure to many," said Gerling. "Laura was a living resource." One student said that what Johnston was doing was "cool."

The educational trip to becoming a certifiable master was not easy. She had to take a math class four times, including two remedial classes. She did not expect any special treatment, and doesn't believe she received any.

She took a history class that Caroline Castillo Crimm taught one summer that involved the restoration of a cabin built about 1840. The students, in the East Texas heat and humidity, tore it apart at its pasture location and put it back together on a lot across the street from the Walker County Courthouse.

Johnston showed up at the ranch where the cabin was located the day the de-construction was to begin. Crimm sent her home.

"I was a little concerned about her age," Crimm explained. "But she was wonderful. She was willing to go out there and do whatever needed to be done."

Crimm couldn't keep her away, though, so besides Johnston's contribution to a chapter in a book about the project, she went down and chinked logs in an area of the cabin that is known as "Laura's corner."

Johnston is aware that she is an inspiration, and encourages others who might think it is too late in life to do something they might have considered doing when younger to think again.

"I hope people will get out there and do things and not just sit around," she said. "If it's not continuing your education, it could be volunteering." She does believe that reading is permissable while you're resting, and said that if she doesn't pursue another degree, possibly in political science, she plans to "read every book in the (Gresham) library."

She has observed that many more folks, but not enough, seem to be continuing their education at older ages.

"When I first came here, there was hardly anybody in their mid-30s, 40s, 50s," she said. "Now you see them all over campus."

The faculty members like Gerling and Crimm, the students who made her feel welcome on campus, and the 6,000 people in Johnson Coliseum, many of whom gave her a standing ovation when she received her degree, are not the only ones who have noticed her accomplishment.

"Laura Johnston is a delight and inspiration to have on the Sam Houston State University campus," said James F. Gaertner, SHSU president.

"We taught her Spanish and history, but she taught us perhaps more important lessons--that a love of life and learning is possible for more years than we might have imagined. "


SHSU Media Contact: Frank Krystyniak
Dec. 23, 2005
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