"Homebody" Needed Change of Pace:
At 90, She Gets Degree

by Greta Petry

Lowanda Deegan wakes up in the morning and declares that life is beautiful.

And why not. Mrs. Deegan, who will turn 91 in August, is about to reach the crowning achievement of almost 20 years of study - she will be awarded a bachelor's degree in English from the University on Sunday, May 19.

Smartly dressed in a mint green suit with matching shoes, Mrs. Deegan was interviewed in the campus bookstore as she came in to pay for her cap and gown.

What made her go back to school so late in life? She enrolled at the University after retiring as a clerk from the New York State Library. At the time of her retirement, she'd already worked for more than a half century at a variety of jobs, including as a social worker during the Depression. While others looked forward to retiring at 55 or 65, Mrs. Deegan was troubled to think that she had to retire at all.

"These people who retire do have qualities that could be useful," she said. Companies should give them a physical and let them work as long as they're capable, instead of getting rid of them, she added.

"After my retirement, I floundered around for a year. I stayed home. I love to keep house. I'm a homebody, but it wasn't enough," Mrs. Deegan said. "All of a sudden it came to me like a little prayer. Twenty-five years before, I'd read an article on how important it is to stay in the mainstream of life. And I knew that's what I wanted to do."

When she started back to school, the Times Union did a story about her. She wasn't keen on being in the public eye, but she agreed to be interviewed in order to help other senior citizens who might be intimidated by the prospect of going to college with 18-year-olds.

Mrs. Deegan went at her own pace, taking one course at a time. Back in the 1930s, a high school diploma qualified her to be a social worker. But as the years passed she saw college-trained social workers being hired, and she eventually regretted not having that sheepskin.

A woman who pronounces her health to be excellent, Mrs. Deegan said she's never had a doctor. Her only concession to age is the walker she uses to get around. "I call him Mr. Walker. I look forward to the time when Mr. Walker and I get a divorce," she quips.

Does she still drive?

"Do I ever!" she replies. Mrs. Deegan goes out to lunch just about every day.

A native of Syracuse, Mrs. Deegan remembers going with her father to see Jim Thorpe play football when she was four or five. Thorpe, internationally considered "the world's greatest athlete" after his decathalon victory at the Stockholm Olympics of 1912, was the first American Indian to play college football.

But she doesn't waste her time thinking about age.

"If anyone has the nerve to ask me how old I am, I'm 16 going on 200, or old enough to know better than to tell," said Mrs. Deegan, who was named Florence at birth, but who has gone by the name of Lowanda most of her life.

"Your viewpoint decides what you are going to be," she says firmly. "I like to select the positive viewpoint." That optimistic outlook is a trait she's had since the days when she'd come home from school, fly through the door, drop off her books, and throw her arms around her mother, announcing, "I love you, Mom. Isn't life beautiful!"

Those memories of her childhood have been the catalyst for a book Mrs. Deegan has written called Susie's Chronicles. "Susie" was her grandmother, Susie Carter Emmons. In addition to finishing up her course work to complete her degree, Mrs. Deegan is looking for a publisher for her book.

She writes out her papers and manuscripts long hand. "I love a big stack of fresh paper that has nothing written on it yet," she says with a writer's gleam in her eye.

For the past two years, Mrs. Deegan has done most of her course work in an English major and history minor through independent study. This has been helpful in the winter when the roads are bad. But she still doesn't like being at home for too long. This past winter with its frequent snowstorms was too much.

"To be stuck in the house even three days is too much. The mice don't talk back," she says.

Besides writing, her two other passions are music (her mother was a piano teacher), and the flower gardens at her Ballston Lake home.

"I just love my flowers," she says.

Moving to the Capital District in her teens, she attended Schenectady High School, Albany High School, and Excelsior High School in Woodlawn. She was a cheerleader, played for one of the first girls' baseball teams in the nation ("I was a southpaw so they stuck me in left field," she says), won a prize-speaking contest, and chaired the dance committee for the prom. On Saturday nights she was assistant pianist for the Knickerbocker Girls, who played for dances.

Her advice to other retirees?

"I would say this: Hang in there in the mainstream and don't let go - it will be a more rewarding style of living for you. To be home, you just settle in and start to decay. I couldn't do it. You need some kind of incentive so that you don't sit home and deteriorate."

And while she doesn't use a computer, Mrs. Deegan is not without technology. Those who call her are apt to hear the recorded message on her answering machine, because she is so often out and about. In her distinctively upbeat voice, she answers, "This is Mrs. D. Please leave a message. I will call you back. Cheerio and ta-ta."