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90-year-old woman returns to campus

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2013 7:00 a.m. CDT
In this July 22, 2013 photo, Shirley Meagher (front left), the third student to sign up for classes at Illinois Central College in East Peoria, rides in a golf cart during a tour of her alma mater at the age of 90. Meagher, who worked in Caterpillar Inc. factories during World War II and helped Vietnamese/Chinese refugees after her teaching career in Washington, Ill., said she loved being a student at the age of 44 in 1967. (AP Photo/Journal Star, Fred Zwicky)

EAST PEORIA (AP) — When Shirley Meagher stepped onto the Illinois Central College campus in 1967, it was a collection of small wooden buildings connected by narrow plank boardwalks.

"It was almost a pioneer experience," Meagher said. "You felt like you were a part of a whole new thing."

Meagher, 90, was a pioneer in more ways than one. Not only was she part of ICC's inaugural class, she was a mid-career mother of five at a time when adult students were rare.

Meagher worked for Caterpillar during World War II, but after her husband left, she needed a job that would also let her care for her family. Teaching seemed like the perfect fit. When she saw a newspaper advertisement for ICC's opening, Meagher, then 44, was third in line to sign up.

The first friend she told "practically rolled on the floor laughing," Meagher said. "She told me my first day on the job would be the day I'd retire."

She was usually the only adult in her classes, older than some of her teachers, and a little self-conscious. Her then-19-year-old daughter, also a college student, warned Meagher not to raise her hand all the time, even if she knew the answers.

As a teenager, Meagher was an unenthusiastic student. At her high school graduation she vowed she would never set foot in a school again. But by the time she enrolled in college, she was waking up at 4:30 a.m. each day to study and squeezing in as many minutes throughout the day as she could. She found her teachers fascinating and studied not only what they taught, but the way they taught.

"Our geometry teacher practically did cartwheels trying to get the math across," Meagher said.

She felt like the most enthusiastic student in the room, and it showed in her grades. She graduated from ICC in 1969, and went on to graduate magna cum laude from Eureka College's teaching program.

Meagher taught at St. Patrick Catholic School in Washington, her hometown, for 17 years, starting with second grade and ending with kindergarten, her favorite age to teach.

After retirement, her adventures continued. When the pastor at her church asked if she would consider hosting a family of Vietnamese refugees, she said yes, figuring he'd never take her up on it. She ended up with 13 new family members, many of whom she's still in touch with. She decided she wanted to see Asia for herself and spent five months working for Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity in Macau, China.

On July 22, Meagher returned to her alma mater for the first time in over a decade for lunch with the college president and a tour. The sprawling campus — at 400 acres, 10 times its size when she enrolled — was barely recognizable, except for a section of the original campus, now on the outskirts, with the same low tan buildings she'd sketched in an art class.

She said she plans to visit ICC more often, and Alumni Association Coordinator Elaine Goslin hopes to make sure of it: She has offered Meagher a place of honor at the 50th anniversary of Meagher's — and ICC's — first graduation.

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