When Rose Burke turned 60, she learned how to fly a plane. At 81 years old, she’s graduating from college.
Burke was born in 1928 just outside of Detroit. She learned to read from a chalkboard at a schoolhouse with eight grades all housed in one room, and she didn’t set foot in a library until age 17, when she left town to take her first job at Hudson’s Department Store, in Detroit.
“There was no library in school or in town,” said Burke. “I’d heard of them, but never had a chance to go to one. The first time I walked in, I wanted to read every book. I love libraries to this day.”
When Burke married her husband, Arthur, she stopped working to raise three children. But to quench her thirst for knowledge, she enrolled in classes to learn Braille and volunteered to work with vision-impaired students. The couple moved in 1978 to Sarasota.
“I worked with two blind boys from grade school to high school,” Burke said. “I was used to the academic life and in close contact with the teachers, so I got used to the feeling of school. Since I didn’t have it growing up, I thought, ‘Why don’t I do it?’”
Burke enrolled at the State College of Florida at age 70 and graduated magna cum laude five years later with an associate degree in music. She will receive her bachelor’s degree in English literature Sunday, May 9, from the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee.
“The first class, I was scared to death,” Burke said. “I had no idea what to do. I had to take a reading class and two semesters of algebra before I could even get in a class (in English literature). Algebra was a challenge.”
Before college, Burke had played piano and classical guitar for 25 years in a folk group at Incarnation Catholic Church and practiced until her fingers bled, but she had to quit the group so she could study.
“My religion teacher held a pizza party for our final and told me to bring my guitar,” Burke said. “I printed out all the notes to ‘Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree’ and we all sat around and sang Christmas carols at his house.”
The lifelong learner doesn’t plan to stop going to school anytime soon. She intends to continue her studies, this time in criminal law, and she even made sure to arrive on campus one hour early just to sign up for her first class next semester.
“It’s a challenge,” Burke said. “It takes a lot of discipline when friends want me to go traveling and party. I love being around the young people and hearing all their different ideas. You have to do as much as anyone else, which is great. I put my hand up when I have the answer — I want to get in there and say what I have to say.”
Contact Loren Mayo at email@example.com.
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