Ex-Ziegfeld Girl gets college degree at 88

May 06, 1992|By William Celis III | William Celis III,New York Times News Service

Doris Eaton Travis confesses that for most of her life she felt inferior to people with formal educations because she had neither a high school diploma nor a college degree.

Nothing could help her shake that feeling -- not her three-year stint as a member of the Ziegfeld Follies, nor her movie career in the early years of Hollywood, nor her business success from owning and selling 19 Arthur Murray dance studios.

But this Saturday, at the age of 88, Mrs. Travis plans to walk across a stage at the University of Oklahoma's football stadium with 2,500 other graduates to receive her bachelor's degree in history, a feat that took her 11 years, taking one or two courses a semester. She will be the oldest to graduate in the university's history.

"When you want to do something, you keep plugging along and all of a sudden you get to the end of the road," said Mrs. Travis, who will graduate with honors and with membership in Phi Beta Kappa, the national honor society, because of her 3.65 grade-point average.

"It's been a lot of hard work," she said. "You don't get anywhere without it."

She should know. A native of Norfolk, Va., she was living with her parents in Washington when she left home at the age of 14 to dance with the Ziegfeld Follies, where two older sisters worked.

For three years she toured the country and then, in 1921, she left the Follies to make a movie in England.

She later returned to performing small roles on stage and in movies in the United States, but when the Great Depression struck, her career soured.

She went to Arthur Murray, who hired her on the spot as a dance instructor.

She parlayed that affiliation into a business, buying and running 19 dance studios in Michigan, where she met her husband, Paul.

They later sold the dance studios and moved to Oklahoma to raise quarter horses. But the absence of a formal education continued to haunt her. By 1981, Mr. Travis had heard enough.

"She kept moaning and groaning about not having a formal education," recalled Mr. Travis, who is 91. "I told her to either put up or shut up."

So Mrs. Travis studied for the general education diploma, passed and enrolled at the University of Oklahoma in 1981.

Mr. Travis helped keep house at their 840-acre ranch just outside Norman.

Whether it was physics, which Mrs. Travis found exceedingly difficult, or whether it was the various history courses she loved, professors say she approached her work with doggedness.

"Although I had the sense that it took her longer than the younger students, she always read all the books I assigned," said David W. Levy, an American history professor who taught Mrs. Travis in several courses.

And there was another difference between her and other students. "It was unnerving when she came up to me after I'd lectured on World War I and said, 'I met Mr. Wilson,' " said Levy, referring to President Woodrow Wilson.

"The first thing that went through my head was, Did I get everything right? I've had several older students, but this was exceptional."

Mrs. Travis was not unnerved about listening to lectures on history she had witnessed. "It was a lot of fun for me in those instances because I thought to myself, I did it once, and here I go again," said Mrs. Travis, who said she majored in world history because she was curious about the countries she had visited in Europe and Central and South America.

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