Still Wheeling to Work at 93 : Age, Driver's Test Can't Outclass Paramount Teacher

Times Staff Writer

At 93, teacher Leone Jackson still drives her car to work.

"I drive reasonably fast. Maybe 50 miles per hour. And I try to drive only during the day and not at night," said Jackson, who started teaching in a one-room schoolhouse in 1911 in Boone County, Neb.

As befits someone who joined the Peace Corps well into her seventh decade, she's not slowing down.

The state Department of Motor Vehicles hasn't stopped her, despite more frequent licensing tests for older drivers. A couple of broken vertebrae laid her up several months ago, but not for long.

Retired at Nearly 70

Jackson retired from full-time teaching in the Paramount Unified School District when she was nearly 70. "Retirement is strictly voluntary by state law, but the normal age of retirement is around 60," said Ken Costa, a spokesman for the state Teachers Retirement System.

That didn't come close to ending her career. For more than 20 years, part time, Jackson has taught English as a second language and Spanish at the Paramount district's Adult School.

She is not alone.

There are 1,378 retired women teachers 90 and older in California, according to state retirement statistics. A few of them still teach--how many, the statistics don't say, but they do show that 206 women teachers over age 70 are teaching.

"We live in a youth-worshipping society. It's stupid. People are constantly acting as if you have Alzheimer's disease or no brains if you are a certain age," Jackson said.

She does not let societal prejudices worry her. But she does admit being a bit nervous recently about having her driver's license renewed. Not being able to drive would be about the only thing that could keep her out of the classroom, she says.

While there is no age limit for drivers, those with decreased skills can be tested every year. And Jackson has become one of those.

After flunking the driver's test twice in the last year, she asked students at Our Lady of the Rosary School--where she teaches Spanish to sixth-graders--to pray for her success.

On her third try, Jackson got her license renewed for one year.

"About three weeks ago it was announced over the loudspeakers to the whole school that she had passed. We all clapped for her," said eighth-grader Esther Cruz, 14, a former student of Jackson's.

In Reverse Gear

Jackson was pleased, too, but she remains "infuriated" at the examiner who flunked her on the previous test.

He "asked me to back up for a block. Nobody backs up for a block. Of course, I ran up on a curb. Of course, I failed," she said.

Jackson's later success made her one of 808 people in Los Angeles County between the ages of 90 and 99 to have a valid driver's license, said DMV public information officer Bill Gengler.

There are 10 licensed drivers in California, nine men and one woman, over age 100, Gengler said.

Jackson came to California in 1929 with her husband, James Clifford Jackson, a hotel manager, who died in 1951. She has two children and three grandchildren.

She has taught in the Paramount district since 1940 and earned master's and doctoral degrees in education from USC. She was principal of Lincoln Elementary School when she retired from full-time work.

Second Career Begun

Then she launched her second career in the early 1960s, spending two years in the Peace Corps in Peru, where she learned Spanish.

"My Spanish isn't perfect, but I get by," Jackson said.

To that, Ed Quesada, principal of Paramount Adult School, says: "She is humble. She is modest about her skills. She has mastered the language."

One of her students there is Msgr. Bernard O'Reilly of Our Lady of the Rosary Church, who speaks Spanish with an Irish brogue. Like others who have observed Jackson, he is amazed by her stamina.

"Her motto is action, action and more action. She never slows down. She broke a bone in her pelvis, but she treated it like a cold. Her drive, her intellect, her knowledge is remarkable. She is indomitable," he said.

Jackson said she apparently cracked some bones in her lower back several months ago when she stepped off a curb.

No Time Off From Work

She did not go to a doctor. She merely took a few weeks off to allow healing and then returned to her students.

"I'm interested in people. I'm interested in things. That's what keeps me going," said Jackson, who lives alone in her three-bedroom house in Paramount.

When she is not traveling to Holland, England, West Germany or South America or visiting relatives in Colorado, she visits her grandchildren in Corona del Mar in Orange County.

Of course, she drives.

"I don't go the freeway. I travel Pacific Coast Highway," she said.

And she goes as fast as need be.

"I go with the flow of traffic," she said.

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