74-Year-Old, Olivia Morgan, University Valedictorian

How could I not post this incredibly inspiring story! Not that I ever felt that I was too old to go to college (I attended my first class when I was 36; I am 41 and still going), but this proves to anyone out there who thinks they are too old, they most certainly are not! Most of what can be found on Google, about Olivia Martin, are news videos (I have included two of these at the end of this post), but I did find a thorough interview by Dennis Taylor from Mercury News. I have a really hard time with paraphrasing and summarizing, and though this would have been a great piece to practice on, I did not want a single detail left out. This is such a wonderful story and I would like you to enjoy Olivia Martin’s success as much as I have.

When a 47-year relationship with her husband ended abruptly as she approached her 70th birthday, Olivia Morgan found herself feeling sad and frightened in equal parts.

Not only was she alone for the first time since her early 20s, Morgan suddenly found herself financially vulnerable.

“Not only was I devastated by the emotional trauma of the end of a long-term marriage, but I also had some very real financial problems,” said Morgan, 74, a California resident since she moved here from her native Wales in 1962. “I realized I had to supplement my tiny Social Security check.”

Her solution was to fall back on 40 years as an educator in Great Britain and the U.S. — including a 24-year stint at Santa Catalina School in Monterey — and become a substitute teacher in public schools.

The bad news, she discovered, was that California didn’t care about four decades of experience or the lifetime teaching degree she earned with highest honors in 1959 from the University of Wales, an extension of Oxford University. In the eyes of the state, she had no credentials to teach in California’s public school system.

So two years ago, Morgan went back to college, enrolling in an accelerated, two-year course at the Monterey extension of Chapman University, recently renamed Brandman University.

On Saturday she’ll stand before her fellow graduates, their families, her three adult sons and her grandchildren to deliver the commencement speech as valedictorian of her class.

“My speech is about going back to college, but also about getting rheumatic fever when I was 11, being told I’d never walk again, then getting it again at 15,” she said. “A specialist said I might walk someday if I did years of physical therapy. I looked in the mirror and said, ‘I can do that,’ and I did. I actually danced with my dad on Christmas Eve.”

Born in 1938, Morgan’s earliest memory is huddling with her family in the dark and dampness beneath the streets of Swanzea, Wales, as German planes bombed the village.

“The house next door, where my best friend lived, got bombed and everybody was killed,” she said. “Our school was destroyed. It was a terrible, terrible time.”

She was the oldest of nine children born to a German mother and Italian father — not a desirable ethnic mix for residents of Great Britain during World War II.

“My parents had a lot of their property confiscated during the war and they never got it back, similar to what happened to the Japanese in the United States,” she said. “We all used my mom’s maiden name — Jones — during the war.” (Morgan’s birth name was Olivia Romano.)

In childhood she lived next door to the sister of future actor Richard Burton, whom she remembers as a handsome teenager with an unforgettable voice that made her believe, even then, that he was destined for great things.

As a 16-year-old she was hired as a cub reporter at her local newspaper, writing stories about singer Shirley Bassey, scuba diving, a scandalous “pajama dance” at the university, and whether drivers were more likely to change a flat tire for a pretty girl, as opposed to a homely one.

Morgan grew to be a statuesque beauty, winning 38 pageants in her youth — “Silly things, like ‘Miss Tea & Crumpets’ and ‘Miss Marilyn Monroe,’ she said with a blush — a trait that ran in the family. In 1960, her grandmother, a gymnast into her 90s, was named “Fittest Old Age Pensioner in Great Britain.” Her mother was “Mrs. Great Britain,” and 22-year-old Olivia won the “Miss Wales” pageant — an award that earned her a full-ride scholarship to the University of Wales.

From left: Hanora Jones (Olivia’s grandmother), Olivia Morgan and Olga Romano (Olivia’s mother) in a photo from 1960. (VERN FISHER/The Herald)

The same year she traveled to German for a study vacation, became lost and was rescued by a handsome American, Kelly Morgan, who helped her find a place to stay.

“I went back that Christmas to go skiing and saw him again,” she said. “Eighteen months later we were married.”

Morgan taught in Stuttgart, Germany, before moving with her husband to America in 1962, where she found a teaching job in an all-Latino class in East Los Angeles.

“They didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Spanish. It was a nightmare,” she said. “I was mostly babysitting, but they were nice kids.”

In addition to the teaching job she held to put her husband through school, Morgan raised her three sons while attending night classes at L.A. City College.

They moved in 1968 to the Monterey Peninsula, where Kelly became Monterey’s city planner and she was hired to teach at Santa Catalina, a job she kept for 2½ decades.

“I’ve always felt very confident about my teaching abilities, perhaps because I had eight younger siblings,” she said. “I’ve always believed in breaking the traditional teaching rules and doing things a bit differently.”

She once escorted Santa Catalina students into the pouring rain for a lesson about writing rain poetry. (The students had brought a change of clothes.) Another time she fed second-graders at Junipero Serra School “horse food” — oatmeal with dried apricots, cranberries and almonds — during a lesson about equines.

She regularly shows up at classrooms with her “Mary Poppins bag,” filled with lesson-related surprises for the children. And she showed up dressed as Cleopatra, bearing oat cakes made from a 500-year-old recipe, for a presentation on ancient Egyptian history at Chapman University.

But the prospect of switching from teacher to student at age 72 was daunting and unsettling. Surrounded by students bearing laptop computers, Morgan took her notes in shorthand she’d learned six decades earlier in Wales. A statistics class overwhelmed her, in part because she also had to learn how to use Excel computer software. She was unimpressed with some online classes she was required to complete, mostly because of the lack of teacher-student interaction.

“And I found out you don’t hand in your paper anymore — you attach a document to an email,” she said. “I accidentally sent the professor my favorite chocolate cake recipe, instead of my paper, on my first try.”

Classes often lasted until 10 p.m., and professors assigned four hours of homework for each hour of class.

“It was very intense, a full-time job,” she said. “But my love for learning returned, and, after feeling overwhelmed for a while, I looked in the mirror one day and said, ‘You can do this!’ And I did.”

She’ll celebrate graduation with a visit to Wales, where her family still lives, then plans to have hip-replacement surgery before applying for work in the local public school systems.

“I was reluctant to tell this story. I’m a humble person,” she said. “But I think it might inspire other seniors.

“And I’m very nervous about giving my speech to all those people at graduation — especially when I know my three sons and grandchildren probably will be making faces at me the whole time.”

By DENNIS TAYLOR from Mercury News

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2 responses to “74-Year-Old, Olivia Morgan, University Valedictorian

  1. Amazing! What a wonderful story to share on Mother’s Day..great advise..I can do that! Thanks for sharing. 🙂

    • She is, isn’t she? I was very happy to share this one. The only limits we truly have are the ones we put on ourselves. This is something I have been learning first hand over the past year. I am ready to soar!

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