Seniors earn degrees after 60 years Graduates: Sylvia and Irv Cohen, who will graduate from Towson University this month, are like many college sweethearts, with one exception -- they are 79 and 81 years old.

May 04, 1998|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,SUN STAFF

Like many in the Class of 1998 at Towson University, Irv and Sylvia Cohen have spent the past four years lugging heavy books around campus, typing dozens of papers with pesky footnotes and studying countless hours to earn baccalaureate degrees.

And, like college sweethearts everywhere, they have been known to hold hands between classes and sneak smooches in the hallowed halls.

But there are a few differences. The Pikesville couple, who have been married 58 years, are more than a half-century older than their fellow students -- and among the oldest graduates in the school's history.

When Mr. Cohen, 81, a political science major, and Mrs. Cohen, 79, a theater arts major, walk across the commencement stage this month in cap and gown, they will achieve a long-delayed goal.

"We've been talking about it our whole married life," said Mrs. Cohen, a diminutive dynamo who greets other students on campus with hugs. "It's something we always wanted to do."

The Cohens are among 103 active Golden I.D. students at Towson University, participating in a program that allows qualified senior citizens to take credits at a discount. But not all of the students are on a degree track, school officials say.

The majority of older people who attend Maryland universities and colleges rely on community colleges to expand their intellectual horizons, according to the Maryland Higher Education Commission. Of the 2,841 students 65 and older who were enrolled in the fall of 1997 in the state, 84 percent, or 2,386 students, chose two-year colleges.

Until five years ago, the Cohens managed piano and organ stores, first on Howard Street in Baltimore and then in Catonsville. He was the affable salesman out front. She was the bookkeeper in the back office.

After they retired, the couple, who raised two sons and have an adult granddaughter, knew it was time to hit the books.

"We got tired of doing run-of-the-mill stuff," said Mr. Cohen, whose thick silver mane was a standout in a recent film class made up mostly of teen-agers in baseball caps and ponytail holders.

During the class lecture, Mrs. Cohen sat in the balcony and watched her husband in the tiered classroom. She greeted him afterward with a quick kiss while he slung a black nylon backpack over his shoulder and grabbed a wooden cane to steady his walk.

"We're best friends," said Mrs. Cohen, who often pops into her husband's classroom after her 8 a.m. ceramics class.

An hour before, amid tables spackled with epoxy and paint, Mrs. Cohen -- in the requisite college uniform of jeans and athletic shoes -- had been pounding a glob of mocha-colored clay and discussing an intricate design for a mirror frame with instructor Ann-Marie Hannawacker.

"She has been ambitious with all her projects, giving them the extra mile always," said Hannawacker, 29. "I find people who go back to school later on in life have a very serious attitude about it."

The Cohens, who chose Towson University because of its proximity, knew they wanted degrees. But, 60 years after graduating from high school in Philadelphia, they weren't sure what to expect. "It wasn't hard coming back. It was hard studying," acknowledged Mrs. Cohen, who estimated that she and her husband spend about eight hours a day studying. "What takes you guys one hour, it takes me three hours."

The Cohens -- who live in a comfortable apartment off Smith Avenue that is decorated with Mrs. Cohen's oil paintings -- set up a homework station in a corner of their bedroom. Mrs. Cohen uses an older Macintosh computer, and Mr. Cohen uses the newer Compaq.

Sometimes they nap between assignments. But they never study together, they say.

"I take stuff and write it down. That works for me," said Mr. Cohen, who is juggling nine credits this spring. "She does a lot of reading."

Mr. Cohen has a 3.0 grade-point average. Mrs. Cohen has a 3.4.

"The overriding thing about Sylvia Cohen is she always wants to get it right," said Ralph J. Blasting, 40, chairman of the theater arts department, who has taught Mrs. Cohen. "She also kept me on my toes."

Despite a frenetic school schedule that often puts the couple on the road before 7 a.m., the Cohens say there will be a gap in their lives when the semester is over.

"We're going to miss it," Mr. Cohen said. "I think we'll have a letdown."

They have no definite plans after graduation but would like to volunteer to help immigrants prepare for American citizenship.

"We want to teach things that might be fun," Mrs. Cohen said.

For now, the couple are concentrating on completing final assignments. For weeks, Mrs. Cohen has been sorting through hundreds of photos to complement a 70-page senior paper she is writing on early Baltimore theater. Mr. Cohen has two exams looming on May 19, his last day -- and several papers due between now and then.

"We are so used to writing papers," Mrs. Cohen said with a sigh.

But they are ready for graduation, they say.

The couple have posed for a formal photograph in black academic robes and have invited dozens of family and friends to an omelet party. They even managed to finagle extra tickets for the May 28 graduation ceremony -- an event that had initially hit a snag.

Because the Cohens are in university divisions that are scheduled to receive their diplomas on different days, they pushed to obtain special permission to graduate at the same time.

"We started school together," Mr. Cohen said. "We want to finish together."

Pub Date: 5/04/98

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