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Willpower, wisdom fuel 99-year-old's quest for a college degree

Doreetha Daniels, 99, will receive her Associate of Arts degree June 5

This is graduation season, and there are lots of good tales of perseverance out there. But it would be hard to top the story of Doreetha Daniels.

You know how some people take some time off between high school graduation and the start of college?

That's what Daniels did.

And next Friday, Daniels, who lives in Agua Dulce, will walk across a stage and receive her Associate of Arts degree in social science from College of the Canyons.

Not bad for a 99-year-old whose high school years ended almost eight decades ago.

"I've had a few bumps in the road," Daniels told fellow students last week at the Santa Clarita school's Canyon Country campus. "But I have overcome them and finally, June 5th, I'm walking."

Daniels was guest speaker in a class called, appropriately enough, Career and Life Planning. The bumps she referred to included a minor stroke, which left some paralysis in her right hand, and being forced, at 97, to stop driving.

"When the bumps come," she told the youngsters, "just pick yourself up and say, 'I'm going to go ahead.' And go ahead."

It worked for her. This is an African American woman who was born during World War I, predates freeways and TV broadcasting, and missed out on early movies because she refused to sit in the balcony of her Nebraska hometown's segregated theater.

She finished high school when FDR was president, went to work in the aerospace industry, raised a family and figured, after turning 90, why not go to college?

When she talked to those students last week, no history books were needed because she was living witness. She told the class about the days when women couldn't vote and hatred was on parade in her hometown of North Platte.

"The Klan would march every Friday down the street," said Mrs. Daniels, who was careful to avoid confrontation because, as she put it to students, she didn't want to lose her life.

She glowed when she spoke of the women's movement, the importance of not having to depend on a man, and her role in changing the name of the Agua Dulce Mother's Club to the Women's Club so it would be more inclusive.

"For years, women had no rights and actually couldn't own property in their own names," she told the class.

On women's rights and equal rights, she said, the progress has been great but the fight hasn't ended. And maybe that's another reason she wanted that degree so badly.

"Oh my goodness, this woman is amazing," said Liz Shaker, who teaches the Career and Life Planning class and has been one of Mrs. Daniels' counselors from the beginning.

Shaker said Daniels was often early for class — as well as a clerical internship at the school — and always sat in the front row to make sure she didn't miss anything.

"She has a passion for psychology, sociology and anthropology," among other subjects, Shaker said.

As Mrs. Daniels tells it, two things motivated her to go to college.

First, she'd grown tired of her hobbies, even though she was accomplished in ceramics, stained glass and jewelry making. And second, she was inspired by her grandchildren, who returned to school for graduate degrees long after starting families and careers.

"She hadn't been to school since, I think it was 1934," said her son, Robert, 76, a retired engineer, with whom she lives. "We encouraged her, and she's the type of person able to do whatever she puts her mind to."

"It took about eight years because she took two courses at a time," said her son, Raymond, 72, a retired lawyer. "She said she wanted to get through it before she was 100."

Mrs. Daniels moved to California after high school to enter nursing school, but there were no openings for out-of-state students at the time, so she went to work in a parts-supply department at McDonnell Douglas. She met a good man at church and they'd been married for 50 years when he died in 1988.

Her son Robert had a thought on his mother's secret to a long life.

"I think it's her frame of mind and her willpower, because she has the world's worst diet," he said, noting that she's especially fond of bacon.

Good genes can't be discounted, said Raymond, but being actively engaged in the world may be key.

"I subscribe to the British magazine New Scientist, and whenever she's over ... she enjoys reading about cutting-edge things," he said.

As sharp as she is, though, school wasn't always a snap for Mrs. Daniels, and it doesn't sound as though her college instructors gave her any free passes.

"If you didn't make the grade, they flunked you," she told me, confessing to a couple of F's, but adding that she had a B-minus average overall.

Her toughest class?

"Statistics," she said, as if she's still angry about having to crack that book open.

Mrs. Daniels' son Robert has driven her to school the last couple of years, but it was her granddaughter, Portia, who handled the duties last week. Portia looked on admiringly as her Granny held forth, and then Shaker asked her to say a word about her grandmother's accomplishment.

"You're never too old to learn something new," Portia said. "We supported and encouraged her as much as we could, just as she supported us."

Student Alannah Byrne, 18, told me she wasn't sure she wanted to go for a degree, but after hearing Mrs. Daniels, she's changed her mind.

Nichole Vannatta, 25, said her own grandmother is a college student in her 80s, but is struggling with it. She said she couldn't believe Mrs. Daniels' mental acuity.

An A.A. degree is halfway to a bachelor's degree, and I asked Mrs. Daniels if she planned to continue her education.

"I don't know," she said. "I'll probably sleep on it for a week, and then I'm going to decide what I'll do."

But first, on June 5th, she's walking.

Follow me at @LATstevelopez

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