"So there I was, a great grandmother going to college for the very first time."
Photos by Travis Dewitz
Judy | Neillsville, WI
"When I was 12 years old, I developed an avid interest in reading stories about medical pioneers, even stories going back way into the 1800s. In those days they were just learning about disease and the way infections spread, and I found that fascinating. It got me interested in medicine at a young age.
Neither of my parents had gone to college, so I didn’t have any encouragement to do so, plus I was shy and a bit of a scaredy-cat. Going away to a university seemed foreboding to me. However, there was a hospital program for nursing less than 15 miles from our home, in Loves Park, Illinois. That seemed less daunting, so I decided to sign up right out of high school.
I met my husband, Ron, while I was in nursing school and we got married in 1962. After that I got my “PHT”...“Pushing Hubby Through,” I call it. It’s when you help get your husband through college. It’s a PHT instead of a PHD.
Ron got his Bachelor’s degree and went on to get his Master’s. At that time I was working nights as a nurse to support the family, and we started having kids.
Ron studied agricultural economics, so once he had his Master's, he wanted to buy a farm, raise the family, and get back to his roots again. So with our three young kids (of our eventual six) we moved to Wisconsin in 1972 and bought 160 acres just outside of Neillsville."
"Just like my husband dreamed, we started to make the farm our life. In the ‘70s and ‘80s we had cows—dairy Jerseys—and sold the milk to a cheese factory. We also raised lambs and chickens. But then we had the drought years.
Going through years of drought meant we often had to buy crops instead of grow them ourselves. That increased our mortgage because we had to borrow against it from the bank. Then we had another issue. Our cattle had an increasing number of stillborn calves, and our young stock were also dying. We took a lamb in for an autopsy. They couldn’t find anything wrong with it other than liver fluke, which wasn’t what was killing the animals. Eventually, we learned we had an unsafe level of nitrates in our well. We had to invest more in our farm to get our water treated to make it safe.
After a while, we were no longer able to make the payments with the milk checks that we were getting. The milk prices were severely cut in those days. It was terrible for us, but we had to give the farm to the bank, and it was sold at auction. When we finally went through foreclosure in 1984, our mortgage had 29% interest.
It took some time, renting and re-establishing ourselves, but eventually, we got back to owning land. My oldest son got married and was able to buy a 40-acre piece. We bought the front 12 acres or so of his property. We raised our kids, and in 1996, after 35 years in nursing, I retired.
We had anticipated a comfortable retirement because my husband had owned part of his family's farm in Illinois and the land was being turned into housing. That was our nest egg. The Rockford-Belvidere area, where it was located, was growing quite rapidly…that was until the housing market dropped due to the recession in 2008. Just as they were starting to convert the property, there were no buyers. The builder could no longer make his payments, and the bank foreclosed.
Then in 2009, my husband Ron died of complications related to chronic disease. He’d been sick a while, but he seemed to have nine lives. He was always working hard, always getting up and going again. This time he didn’t. We’d been married for 47 years.
As I came through this very difficult time, I was a realist. I knew I could probably get by without working; stay retired. We had six children and we farmed, so I had years of experience trimming a very tight budget. I still had my Social Security. But I wanted more of a cushion to keep my older years a bit more comfortable. I also wanted to be able to do some traveling. In order to do that, I needed to work part-time again.
It didn’t take me too long to realize that I really wanted to get back to nursing. It is where my passion remained. Unfortunately, I had been out of nursing for about 15 years, so I wasn’t current. The three-year nursing diploma I got back in the ‘60s…it’s like a high school degree these days.
I found out that to go back into nursing, I would have to go back to school. I decided to go for it. So there I was, a great grandmother going to college for the very first time. I was nervous, hoping that I could do it as an old lady! Despite the nerves, I was pretty excited about it too, because I have always loved to learn."
"After commuting to complete my gen-ed credit requirements at Chippewa Valley Tech, I enrolled in the Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing (BSN) online program at University of Wisconsin - Eau Claire.
That was extremely exciting moment for me. I was finally enrolled at a university! I felt like I was with the big leagues. My parents had never graduated from college and I never had my own chance...until now, at 74 years old.
I loved the online program, but it had its challenges. Living in Neillsville with our rural internet coverage and brown-outs, I learned the hard way that I could lose all my answers on a test if I didn’t save them. The worst was an exam with essay questions. I would be writing a long answer to a question and then blip, it’s all gone.
I soon realized it's just a matter of organizing your time. First of all, you don't take your exam when it's storming in rural Wisconsin. You wait until it's nice and sunny. You also need to wait until the kids are in school and you never choose weekends. Because I'm five miles out of Neillsville, the copper lines get quite weak out here. If kids are gaming or something or their parents are watching Netflix, I don't get much juice. I hope someday we get cable internet out here, but for now, I have my workarounds.
I did very well in nearly all of my classes. The nursing courses were very stimulating. There was one required course that was particularly challenging for me—communications. The oldest student (other than myself) was 29 years old, the age of some of my grandchildren! I did learn some neat tech tips from them, but mostly I just felt like we weren’t speaking the same language.
I found I could relate better to many of the students in the nursing program, who were a little older, married, and some had kids. My fellow students became my partners in crime. We went through the ups and downs of college together. Plus they appreciated my old-time stories, which was fun. A lot of them were working full-time on top of the classwork. Some were in their 20s but most of them were non-traditional students in their 30s and 40s. I fit in with them, because we all had the same goals. They wanted to benefit themselves and also to learn more about their career.
My last semester was the hardest, because I set a goal to bring up my GPA so that I could get magna cum laude. My GPA was just above a 3.4. That wasn’t good enough to me; I wanted to do better and get to 3.5.
I felt because of my age, everybody around me was starting to think I'm senile already, like I should already be in the nursing home, or whatever categories they classify old people and put them into. I wanted to prove to myself, to my grandchildren, and to my children, too, that hey, I can do this and I can even graduate at the top of my class.
During that last semester, I didn’t go to any school concerts or anything the grandkids had. I couldn't have any of them for overnight stays. Instead, I studied on the computer seven days a week. It was a long, long semester, but it paid off. My diploma's got the little sticker on it that says magna cum laude. I’m very proud of that!"
"I graduated with my Bachelor’s degree in nursing in December 2016, at the spry young age of 76 years old.
At the ceremony, the UW-Eau Claire chancellor got up and congratulated the graduating class. Then he said, ‘We have a special graduate today,’ and then he introduced me. I thought, 'Okay, well I’ll just wave and sit down again.' He said, ‘No, don’t sit down,’ and then went on forever it felt like, telling them how my husband died, how I got started at the school, how hard I had worked, and everything.
Walking across the stage to get my degree, shaking people’s hands, things got kind of gushy. I was just totally overwhelmed.
My children and grandchildren were all in the audience. Some of my family flew in just to see me graduate. All in all, 24 members of my family came that day. It was really special that they all could see the ceremony. I thought we would just leave right afterward and go to my son's house to have a family dinner with some friends. But my family wanted to stay and take pictures. So now I've got pictures of my grandkids with me with my graduate robe on.
Getting my nursing degree at that stage of life was really the ultimate once-in-a-lifetime experience.
After graduation, I got a job in nursing again. I started working in Eau Claire for a nurse practitioner Ph.D. at a holistic nursing medical practice. That was a very different field for me with a lot of new, exciting things to learn. But the hour-long drive was too challenging for me in the winter with the snow and black ice. I left that position last winter and decided to look for something closer to home.
I’m optimistic that I will find something part-time soon, hopefully at a hospice or working in drug or alcohol addiction treatment. I would like to continue to help others if I can.
My children keep threatening me about going to get my Master’s, but I just say, 'No, no, no. I'm done.' I’ve also gotten some calls for full-time work, but I don’t want to be that tightly bound. I have 10 grandchildren and a great grandchild, and I love being with them whenever I can.
If I don’t have a new career, in the end, it will still all have been worth it. The learning was excellent. This experience is going to be with me for a long time. I’m grateful for that."
-Judy | Neillsville, WI