(From Clarion-Ledger.com – 8/7/10)
Evelyn Bush promised herself more than 60 years ago that she would graduate from college.
Her time has finally come. The 79-year-old early childhood education major will be among 360 Jackson State students to receive degrees at the university’s summer commencement ceremony today (8/7/10).
“I really wanted to graduate before I turned 80 years old,” Bush said with a slight laugh. “It hasn’t been easy.”
Over the years, she has worked as an egg inspector, a catalog distribution center employee and a clothes maker. She spent decades sewing seat cushions at an auto plant in Michigan. She had her colon removed because of cancer, and she separated from her husband.
“I have seen a lot of sad times in my life and a lot of glad times,” Bush said. “It could have been worse and it could have been better.”
Jackson State University
Rodney Washington, chairman of JSU’s early childhood program, said Bush has been an inspiration to him personally as he’s watched her progress through school over the past four years.
“It’s just a joy to see her complete,” he said. “It’s well deserved.”
Bush said she’s made good friends along the way and had the support of her family. Several family members are in Jackson to see her graduate. Jackson resident Cathie Moore said she sees Bush as a foil for those who think they’re too old to return to school.
“If there were more people in the world like Evelyn, it would be a better place,” Moore said.
While others say they are impressed by the accomplishment, Bush often downplays the significance and has to be prodded to talk about the hurdles she has overcome.
“I’ve heard of people in their 90s getting doctorate degrees,” she said. “I know I heard about a woman who was 94 years old getting a high school diploma – that was years ago, before I went back to school.”
Born in Mississippi, Bush spent most of her life in Tennessee, Illinois and Michigan. Growing up, her family had little money for things such as books, but education was always a goal, she said. At age 16, she moved in with relatives in Chicago, hoping to go to school. She promised herself she would earn that college degree – a feat no one else in her family had ever accomplished.
“When I got to Chicago, I realized that they were struggling, too – my cousins would be fighting over a piece of bread,” Bush said. “I knew I couldn’t go to school. I’d have to go to work.”
She recalls holding eggs up to a candle to see if they were rotten, lying about her age so she could work for Montgomery Ward and finding an ad in the newspaper for a job at Chrysler that made her so anxious she couldn’t sleep.
“I had five kids and it paid more than I had ever made in my life,” Bush said about Chrysler. “Even without a degree, I could make decent money, and they had excellent benefits.”
She didn’t score high enough on Chrysler’s written exam, but she had learned how to use just about any kind of sewing machine while working for a clothes maker in Chicago.
“They saw I could sew, so they gave me the job,” she said.
During a brief layoff from the auto plant in the 1970s, Bush earned her GED. She mentions she “barely passed it” – scoring one point above required.
“I didn’t want to cry, but tears kept streaming down my face,” she said.
The Chrysler plant called her back to work before she could start college. She eventually took an early retirement from Chrysler, but she waited until her grandchildren were older before starting community college in Phoenix at the age of 73. She said she transferred to Jackson State because it was the first four-year school to send her an acceptance letter.
“I did not try to linger around, waiting to see if I was accepted anywhere else,” she said. “I packed up the few things I had and came to Jackson.”
Moore first noticed Bush in line for communion at St. Richard Catholic Church. Driving home, Moore spotted her walking.
“It was August, so it was hot,” Moore said.
When she asked if the then-76 year old needed a ride, Bush told her she lived too far away and would be an inconvenience.
“She was walking two miles to Mass and two miles home,” Moore said. “I told her that’s too far.”
The two worked out a schedule and Moore started driving her to church regularly. When Bush was being treated for colon cancer, Moore often drove her to her doctor’s appointments.
“She takes nothing for granted,” Moore said. “I’ve never heard her complain.”
If there’s one frustration Bush will vent, it’s that she wasn’t able to graduate at the spring commencement in May. The delay was because of her cancer treatment.
“I’m angry over that,” she said.
Washington said he’s impressed Bush has been able to make it through this soon. Many nontraditional students take time to readjust to school.
“She was taking a full load – sometimes 16 or 17 hours,” he said. “She held her own.”
Now that she has her degree, Bush wants to put it to use. Though she’s well past retirement age, she’ll be entering the job market alongside her peers.
“I have to work so I can pay back my student loans,” she said.
Her goal is to help children learn to read.
“My father could not read or write, so that is something very special to me,” she said.
To comment on this story, call Elizabeth Crisp at (601) 961-7303.