When Nola Ochs graduated with a history degree in May, she made history herself as the world’s oldest college graduate. But the 95-year-old hasn’t packed away her book bag yet.
Nola returned to Fort Hays State University in Hays, Kan. (pop. 20,013), this month to pursue a master’s degree in liberal studies. “I’m always satisfied when I’m in a learning situation,” she says.
Nola already has put her bachelor’s degree to work. During a guest appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno in May, Nola joked that she planned to seek employment on a cruise ship as a storyteller.
“I had to say something when people asked,” Nola says, her face aglow with sparkling blue eyes. Princess Cruises offered her a job as a guest lecturer, and Nola set sail on a nine-day Caribbean cruise in June.
Nola’s family says she is an inspiration to everyone.
“I think it’s terrific any time someone has a desire like that and follows through,” Alan Ochs, 53, says about his mother’s yearning to learn. It will take at least two years to complete her master’s degree and Nola will be 97 or older.
“My mother has never talked about her age,” says Alan, the youngest of Nola’s three sons. “You’re as young as you think you are. It’s just a number.”
Nola wasn’t thinking about a world record or recognition or even a college degree when she enrolled in her first college class—tennis—at Dodge City Community College in Dodge City, Kan. (pop. 25,176), in 1978 as a 68-year-old widow.
“I just wanted to get out and be with people,” says Nola, whose husband, Vernon, died in 1972. “I wanted to be involved. College was something for fun, something to do.”
Nola and college clicked. After tennis, Nola took an agribusiness class to better manage the family’s wheat farm near Jetmore, Kan. (pop. 903), with her three sons: Alan, Marion, 64, and Loren, 72.
Each year, Nola took one or two classes, including Bible and computer classes, which proved to be a boon for her genealogy research, a longtime interest.
In 1988, one of Nola’s professors told her that if she’d take college algebra, she would have enough credits for an associate’s degree in general subjects. Nola didn’t hesitate, or stop with an associate’s degree.
She continued her studies for the joy of learning, but with the intention of earning a bachelor’s degree some day from Fort Hays State University, although the university is 110 miles from the family farm.
“I still wanted to graduate,” Nola says. “That desire was still there.”
Three years ago, Nola e-mailed an academic adviser at Fort Hays State University to see if her credits from Dodge City Community College would transfer. She mentioned that she had taken a correspondence course through Fort Hays when the school was known as Kansas State College. The adviser, Joleen Briggs, located her transcript and puzzled at the date of the correspondence course: 1930.
“I looked at that transcript and thought it was a typo,’” Briggs recalls. “Then I looked at her birthday—1911—and thought, ‘Oh, my gosh,’ and then I just had to ask her, ‘Nola, how old are you?’”
Young at heart
Nola was born to Olly and Ethel Hill on Nov. 22, 1911, and grew up on a farm near Ainsworth, Neb. (pop. 1,862), where she had responsibilities before she was old enough to attend school. One of her chores was gathering a tub of corncobs each day to be burned for heating and cooking.
“My parents stressed diligence and honesty and cleanliness and that tended toward making me what I am today,” Nola says.
One of Nola’s earliest memories, at the age of 6, is of the family riding to town in a wagon so her father could enlist in the Army during World War I. That experience served as a lesson in duty and patriotism.
Throughout her school years, Nola’s mother, a former schoolteacher, encouraged her to do her best, and she did, winning grade-school arithmetic contests and serving as salutatorian of her eighth-grade class.
“I rode a horse four miles to school, then drove a car when I was a sophomore,” she says. “That oil would get so cold, I could barely change gears.”
In 1927, the Hill family moved to a farm near Dodge City, Kan. Nola boarded with an in-town family when school was in session and she graduated from Dodge City High School in 1929.
Following in her mother’s footsteps, she passed her teacher’s certification exam and taught in country schools in Hodgeman County (pop. 2,085) for four years before marrying Vernon Ochs.
, “In the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, women didn’t work outside the home,” Nola says, “and really I was pretty busy with four children.” A son, Charles, died. “In the ’30s, during the Depression, I milked nine cows by hand in order to live.”
Nola still works on the farm, handles the bookkeeping and drives into town to pick up machinery parts when needed. One of her concerns whenever she thought about completing her bachelor’s degree was neglecting her farm. Her sons assured her, though, that the farm would be in good hands if she decided to go away to college.
A coed at 94
Last fall, Nola packed up her computer, clothes and crochet hooks and moved into a campus apartment at Fort Hays to complete the 30 hours needed for a bachelor’s degree.
Sharing her excitement was her granddaughter, Alexandra Ochs, 21, a fellow senior. The two were classmates in an Old Testament history class.
“With the first papers we got back, I was worried that she’d do better,” Alexandra says. Both received A’s.
Strolling across campus with her white hair tucked in a bun and a ready smile, Nola quickly became a celebrity on campus. Classmates threw her a surprise party for her 95th birthday.
While Nola occasionally mingled with and baked cinnamon rolls for her fellow students, socializing took a backseat to her studies. “I’ve worked like a beaver, and when finals came along, I worked like two beavers,” she says.
During her two semesters, she earned a 3.7 grade-point average and wrote more than 100 essays and research papers.
Her political issues professor, Shala Mills, used one of Nola’s A-plus papers as an example to students on how to do a thorough research and writing job.
“She’s a delight to have in class,” Mills says. “Nola always volunteers in discussions.”
Classmate Dena Thomas, 22, says she enjoyed Nola’s perspective on issues. “In class you talk about ‘what if,’ but Nola talks about what was.’”
Nola’s 13 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren are especially proud of her educational world record, and her decision to pursue a master’s degree.
“She has always encouraged all of us grandkids to get good grades,” says Colby Ochs, 18, a senior at Jetmore High School. When he needs help with math, he heads to his grandmother’s house for tutoring.
Thirty-five proud family members attended Nola’s graduation ceremony decked out in matching “Nola’s #1 Fan” T-shirts. The audience gave Nola a standing ovation as she walked across the stage to receive her diploma from Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.
“Everybody admires her,” says Alexandra, who graduated alongside her grandmother. “It’s one thing to be 95 and go back to school, but it’s another to be 95 and graduate.”