She thought of herself as just another student, a life-long learner, but Nola Ochs became much more than that when she sought to finish her bachelor’s degree at Fort Hays State University in 2006.
Ochs, who became a Guinness World Records holder as the world’s oldest college graduate when she received a bachelor’s in general studies at age 95 in 2007, died Friday in Dodge City. She was 105.
“I was just another student,” Ochs said in a press conference after that graduation ceremony, where she received a standing ovation as then-Gov. Kathleen Sebelius handed her the diploma in Gross Memorial Coliseum. Special accommodations had to be made for all the media attracted to her story. Not long after, she even made an appearance on “The Tonight Show” with Jay Leno, and her image can still be found on internet memes, most notably one picturing her speaking in a class with the caption “Corrects history professor. Remembers being there.” She was also featured in a documentary, “Over 90 and Loving It,” which also featured folk singer Pete Seeger.
She never intended to be in the spotlight, but she used it to share her love of learning.
“My main reason to enjoy it is to bring attention to our learning at colleges,” she told The Hays Daily News just days before graduation in 2007. “There’s no end to our education if we desire to keep learning, and today there’s so much new to learn.”
She didn’t stop with the bachelor’s degree, enrolling the next fall in graduate school at FHSU and working as a graduate teaching assistant. She obtained a master’s in liberal studies with a concentration in history in May 2010, and continued taking classes for enjoyment after that.
“It occupies my time pleasurably,” Ochs told HDN as she enrolled for graduate school. “I enjoy the learning. I enjoy the association with the students and professors. It strictly is something that I enjoy doing. I know that that’s good for my overall well being, my health and happiness.”
The university commemorated her 100th birthday in 2011 at a home basketball game. More than 100 of her family members attended a reception in the Victor E. Tiger Lounge before the game.
At halftime, she blew out the candles on a birthday cake at center court after family, friends and fans sang “Happy Birthday.”
Shortly after that, she moved back to the family farm near Jetmore, where she wrote her memoirs, which is in the process of being published, according to her obituary. A notice of her passing appears in today’s HDN.
Ochs was born Nov. 22, 1911, near Ramsey, Ill., the oldest daughter of Olile and Ethel Hill. They moved to a farm near Ainsworth, Neb., then to Jetmore in 1927.
She graduated from Dodge City High School in 1929 and taught four terms in rural one-room schoolhouses in Hodgeman County.
She married Vernon Ochs on Sept. 3, 1933, and they had four sons. Vernon Ochs died on Jan 30, 1972.
In 1978, Ochs signed up for a tennis class at Dodge City Community College.
“I wanted something just to get away from the farm,” she told HDN in 2007.
She continued taking classes and received an associate’s degree from Dodge City in 1988, then enrolled as a full-time student at St. Mary of the Plains College in 1991. That college closed before she could finish a bachelor’s degree, however.
Funeral services will be at 10:30 a.m. Thursday at Grace Community Church, Dodge City. Visitation will be from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday at Beckwith Funeral Home, Jetmore. Graveside services will be at 2:30 p.m. at the Fairmount Cemetery, Jetmore.
In lieu of flowers, memorials may be made to the Hodgeman County Long Term Care Center, Jetmore, in care of Beckwith Funeral Home, Box 663, Jetmore, Kansas 67854.