YOCEMENTO, Kan. - A storm was brewing in the north, but there was nothing but peace and good cheer around our kitchen table last Thursday evening. My family and I had the privilege of hosting Nola Ochs and her great-granddaughter Janae Ochs for dinner.
I took an Old Testament class with Nola in the fall of 2006, where we first met. It was her first semester as an on-campus student. On the first day of class, we went around and introduced ourselves with a brief bit about why we were taking the class. Nola said that she was interested in the Bible. She tagged on at the end that she was 94.
There were no gasps or applause from the class; instead there were a few indulgent smiles. How quaint that this elderly woman wants to better understand the history of the Bible. Most likely the professor will go easy on her. After all, she's 94 years old. But we soon found out that Nola Ochs was no shrinking violet. She spoke up with thoughtful, relevant remarks, wrote papers and took exams.
Her diminutive stature, around 5 feet, belies her strength. She told us how after her husband Vernon passed away, she and one of her sons would go to town to run errands, and the son would automatically get behind the wheel. After a few times of this, Nola told him to "scoot over" and let her drive.
An inductee in the Guinness Book of World Records for the oldest person to receive a Bachelor's degree, Nola wants the world to know that learning is "fun." She began her adventure in fun eighty years ago, taking a correspondence course in education from Fort Hays State University, which was then known as Kansas State Teachers College. Laughing, she talked about how, when she enrolled in 2006, her advisor called her regarding a typo concerning a date on a previous credit on her transcript. Nola responded that 1930 was indeed correct.
She welcomes publicity. "I enjoy talking to reporters. The media has been good to me. So far, there's been no scandal," Nola quipped. Three years ago, riding the wave of fame after graduating with a Bachelor's, her schedule was so heavily booked that her granddaughter, Alexandra, who was then a senior at FHSU and serving as her volunteer agent, turned down the Oprah Winfrey Show.
Yet she is game for just about anything that comes her way. A morning radio show out of Denver pitted Nola against other callers in a trivia game, which lasted for an entire week. I asked her how she performed. She replied, "Great! I could tell what the correct answer was by the inflection in the DJ's voice."
At the present Nola is busy preparing for "Research and Creative Activity Week" at FHSU. Upon the request of the chair of the history department, Dr. Ray Wilson, she is presenting a paper on piracy. Her project is titled "Ahoy, Matey: Piracy Today and Yesterday." Nola became interested in the subject after reading about an increase in piracy off the coast of Somalia in the Indian Ocean. Dr. Wilson is looking for a parrot to perch on Nola's shoulder for the presentation.
Nola, born in 1911, will be awarded her Master of Liberal Studies (MLS) with a concentration in history on May 15th. She reports that she has completed the requirements, which include passing her comprehensive exams. When our daughter pointed out the significance of this achievement, she shrugged it off with "I have done nothing special. I'm just old."
I asked Nola about her plans after graduation. She replied, "I will be taking an online course called 'The History of Ideas' this summer. I scanned the textbook, and it looks interesting. I heard that there were three openings for a teacher's assistantship for the fall. I'm thinking about applying."[The sketch of Nola is by my friend Tina.]