Sweet Success at 89 : Master's Degree Caps a College Career That Started in the 1920s

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There hadn't been this much attention paid to Pearl Sweet for 70 years--not since that fateful day in 1924 when she fell through the trapdoor next to the front cash register at the Wave Confectionary Shop and landed with a thud in the basement near the chocolate-dipping machine.

Here the 89-year-old was, decked out Thursday in a cap and gown, getting a master's degree in history from Cal State Long Beach as a busload of relatives from all over the United States looked on.

"I tried to steam out my gown and hood in the bathroom, but it didn't work," apologized Sweet, who lives at Leisure World in Seal Beach. "So I'm afraid they're wrinkled. But so am I."

Sweet's college career has had more than its share of wrinkles, too.

She started it in the early 1920s at the University of the Pacific in Stockton. But the 1924 tumble through the trapdoor cut it short.

The fall damaged her kidneys, knocked her gall bladder askew and caused other internal injuries that she says have dogged her ever since.

"It was one of the nicest stores in Stockton," she recalls. "They sold homemade candies they made in the basement. I slipped, grabbed a post and a metal chain and we all went to the basement concrete floor."

In the years after the accident, Sweet raised two sons and watched them pursue college educations. But it wasn't until 1976 that she decided to resume her own studies.

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She finished her undergraduate work through a University of the Pacific extension program and immediately launched her master's degree studies at Cal State Long Beach when she learned that fees were waived for senior citizens.

For her thesis, she decided to research the history of Methodist higher education in Northern California. She started writing it in 1980.

Along the way, she took courses from a dozen professors. Two of her graduate studies advisers died. Her last one, retired history professor Irv Ahlquist, spent a record 12 years on her thesis committee. He sat near the front at Thursday's commencement to watch her graduate.

"I'm glad to see this day come. In many ways," Ahlquist said with a laugh.

Dee Abrahamse, a former history department chairwoman who is Cal State Long Beach's acting vice president, praised Sweet's accomplishment: "She didn't do this for a career. She did it for intellectual satisfaction."

About 50 family members from as far as Florida came for the ceremony. Afterward, they tossed a combination celebration party and family reunion at Leisure World, where Sweet's three-room home and patio are filled with research materials for her 130-page thesis.

"Well, if I die here nobody will have to worry about notifying my relatives. They're all here," Sweet joked to university administrator Shayne Schroeder as she waited for the ceremony to begin.

Sons Sanford, 64, and Van, 62, assisted their mother when it came time for her degree to be conferred by interim university President Karl Anatol. She beamed and waved to the cheering crowd.

"My friends and family are so relieved," she said. "Every year the alumni association kept sending me a letter welcoming me as a member, but my thesis wasn't finished."

Now it is. And so is she. "I don't plan to go back to school again. Ever," she said. "This is enough."

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