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John Harvard's Journal

A Formidable Woman

7.1.97

 Harvard granted 6,102 degrees on June 5. No recipient had shown greater determination than Mary Fasano, A.A.E. '93, when she was closing in on her bachelor of liberal arts in extension studies degree. President Rudenstine saluted her during the morning exercises, "the eldest student in the history of this University to graduate with a B.A.," and noted that she took one course per semester for 17 years to realize her dream. She addressed an Extension School gathering on Thursday afternoon, in part as follows.

 

I remember one night a few years ago when my daughter was frantic with worry. After my Extension School classes, I usually arrived at the bus station near my home by 11 p.m., but on that night I was nowhere to be found. My daughter was nervous. It wasn't safe for a single woman to walk alone on the streets at night, especially one as defenseless as I am; I can slay a mugger with my sharp wit, but I'm just too short to do any real physical damage.

That night my daughter checked the bus station, drove around the streets, and contacted some friends. But she couldn't find me--until she called my astronomy professor, who told her that I was on top of the Science Center using the telescope to gaze at the stars. Unaware of the time, I had gotten lost in the heavens and was thinking only about the new things I had learned that night in class.

This story illustrates a habit I have developed over the years: I lose track of time when it comes to learning. How else do you explain a woman who began high school at age 71 and who is graduating with a bachelor's degree at 89? I may have started late, but I will continue to learn as long as I am able because there is no greater feeling, in my opinion, than traveling to a faraway country, as I have, and being able to identify by sight the painting of a famous artist, the statue of an obscure sculptor, the cathedral of an ancient architect. I have found that the world is a final exam that you can never be prepared enough for.

If the saying is true that wisdom comes with age, you may safely assume that I am one of the wisest people in this hall and possibly at this University today. So listen to me when I tell you this: Knowledge is power.

My studies were interrupted when I was in the seventh grade, back sometime around World War I. I loved school but was forced to leave it to care for my family. I was consigned to work in a Rhode Island cotton mill, where I labored for many years. I eventually married and raised 5 children, 20 grandchildren, and 18 great-grandchildren. But all the while I felt inferior to those around me. I knew I was as smart as a college graduate. I knew I was capable of doing a job well--I had proven it by running a successful family business for decades. But I wanted to feel confident when I spoke and I wanted people to respect my opinions.

I am here today to prove that it can be done; that the power gained by understanding and appreciating the world around us can be obtained by anyone. That belief is what has motivated me for the last 75 years to get this degree.

There are many students here who do not have the opportunity that I do to speak their minds and have everybody listen, whether they want to or not. But be assured, fellow graduates, that we are more similar than you might think. If you have treated education as your main goal, and not as a means to an end, then you, too, have probably been claimed as a missing person once in your academic career, whether you were lost in the stars or the stacks of Widener Library.

And you, too, know that the journey was worth it, and that the power of knowledge makes me the most formidable 89-year-old woman at the bus stop.