At 72, a New Degree and a New Career : Her Studies Will Aid Other Seniors

Times Staff Writer

Like many of her fellow students at San Diego State University, Dena Tarr totes a mid-size radio-cassette player or “ghetto blaster” around campus, burns the midnight oil occasionally and watches for her sweetheart in the library.

Unlike most of her fellow students, Tarr is a grandmother who used to spend her days playing cards and sipping tea with the “girls.”

But for the past two years, Tarr, 72, has commuted twice a week from her home in Carlsbad to earn a master’s degree in sociological counseling at SDSU. Next month she will be graduating as the oldest person in her counseling program.

“This is one of the most significant things that I have ever done,” Tarr said. “It will allow me to do something that will really help society.”


Sitting in her basement-turned-study, lined with books on psychoanalysis and life extension, Tarr said she plans to set up practice as a counselor for senior citizens.

“There aren’t any counselors out there who really understand the needs of senior citizens,” she said. “I not only understand them, but I can be an example of how we can grow old nicely.”

Initially enrolled in the class of 1936 at UCLA, Tarr said that she deferred her education to help feed her family during the Depression. Then came marriage and children.

Then her friends told her she was crazy for wanting to go to school, she said.

“All my life I had wanted to go to school,” Tarr said. “There came a time when there was nothing to do but clean house and play golf.”

After a couple of stints at junior colleges, Tarr graduated with a bachelor’s degree in sociology from UC San Diego in 1982. At age 69, she was the oldest member of the senior class that year.

After graduation, Tarr returned to her job as a medical secretary at UCSD Medical Center. When she turned 70, she said, they forced her to retire.

“The experience showed me how older people get hurt,” she said. “We need to realize that we don’t have to let society limit us.”


With a stubborn determination that had been evident since childhood, Tarr then set out to turn her interest in psychology into a profession.

In 1983, Tarr exchanged her retirement for the scholar’s life. Leaving the housework to Lester, her husband of 50 years, she stalked the campus library, filled her mind with Freud and is currently finishing her thesis on clinical psychoanalysis of the elderly.

Emery Cummins, chairman of SDSU’s counseling department, said that while Tarr is not the oldest to graduate from the graduate program, she is one of the few who have come through with the benefit of a lifetime of experiences.

“People who have had many life experiences do better in counseling than the young,” Cummins said. “She (Tarr) has a lot of personal momentum.”


Born in Philadelphia to poor Polish-Jewish immigrant parents, the petite white-haired Tarr said she has never taken life’s obstacles seriously.

“During what they called the Depression, I went around from door to door until I found work,” she said. “I wasn’t going to believe that there wasn’t anything to do.” She then raised two sons and helped her husband run a plumbing and construction business in West Los Angeles. After the business was sold in 1953, her husband acquired a pharmaceutical company and she went to work for nine years as a medical secretary at UCLA Medical Center. When her husband retired in 1976, the couple moved to Carlsbad.

“She’s always going, going, going,” said Tarr, 75. “I made her quit school once in the ‘50s, when she was trying to do everything. She was driving me crazy.”

Now he drives her to school and occupies himself in the library while she is in class, he said.


“Now she’d better graduate or I’ll be disgraced,” he said, laughing.

“I would like to get my Ph.D, too,” she said. “I don’t want to die before getting my Ph.D.”