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Here's To You, Mrs. Robinson

May 18, 2011 By:
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Annette Robinson in Abington, with her school mascot, the Nittany Lion Photo courtesy of Nancy McCann

As much as Annette Robinson longed for a college degree, her health somehow got in the way.

The Huntingdon Valley grandmother halted her studies again and again -- first for breast cancer, then residual effects of childhood polio, a fractured hip and Stage 3 ovarian cancer.

In the end, even all those maladies didn't stop her from reaching her goal.

On Friday, at age 80, she rode her electric scooter proudly up the stage at Penn State's Abington campus to collect the bachelor's degree she'd set out to earn 30 years ago.

"I've been fighting like hell, and I still am," she declared.

Robinson said she'd always wanted to go to college, but there were simply too many financial obligations to meet when she graduated from West Philadelphia High. By age 21, she was married to the textile salesman she'd met while working as a bookkeeper. She took a couple of night classes at Temple University before getting pregnant -- "and that was the end of that," she said.

Besides raising children, she said she was always busy with their synagogue, Congregations of Shaare Shamayim.

It wasn't until age 50, when their son and daughter had both gone through university and established professional lives, that she entertained her desire to join their ranks as a college graduate.

"I'm not the kind of person to sit home and vegetate; it's boring," she said.

So, in 1980, she enrolled in a Penn State associate's degree program. She was in the midst of preparing for finals, she said, when doctors discovered breast cancer. Her studies went on hold as she recovered from the mastectomy.

By 1983, she was back to finish her two-year degree and plowed on to bachelor's requirements. Inspired after taking several courses with Moylan Mills, who would later become her academic advisor, she found her niche in the integrative arts program.

Soon, though, flare-ups from the polio she'd suffered at age 6 made it harder to climb stairs with a heavy backpack. Then, a 1990 car accident shattered her hip and, yet again, her studies.

Neither Sits on Their Laurels

After a few years off for rehab, Robinson was back again. Her husband of nearly 60 years, Sidney, typed up papers or chauffeured her to class in their scooter-accessible van when she didn't feel up to driving herself.

Sidney's not exactly sitting around doing nothing -- at 86, he works part-time at Wal-Mart.

Not once, though, did Robinson let her physical handicaps keep her from being a good student or from taking advantage of special university programs, said Mills: "She never had any excuses, and she never asked for any special favors."

"When I would walk into the class, she would be there," he said, usually in the front row with homework ready to turn in. "When I was packing up my books, she would still be there, asking questions. She is what I would call the kind of student that you want everyone to be."

More impressive than her work ethic, Mills said, was how much she grew from a "beginning student" to a perceptive critical thinker with academic honors. Culturally, he continued, it opened her to a world of shows, operas and museums that simply hadn't been a major part of her life before then.

Because she was so enthusiastic about school, he said, her classmates embraced her.

"We all have to have the papers in, we all have to respond in class, so there's no age difference in the class," said Robinson. "The only thing they noticed this semester was I had no hair, so I had a hat on. So when it came back in, I had it colored, and they all complimented me on how nice it looked."

If not for her most recent battle with ovarian cancer, Robinson would have been on track to finish her coursework in December.

The night before surgery, she told the doctor, " 'All I want to do is graduate,' " remembered her daughter, Sharon Robinson-Taylor. "That's how much it meant to her."

Said Robinson: "I wanted to live, but it really gave me something more to fight for."

Like her mother, Robinson-Taylor, a 53-year-old special-education teacher from Middletown Township, was also back in school at the time, spending her evenings in a Cabrini College master's degree program. She said she wrote her last few papers sitting beside her mother's hospital bed.

The affirmation of Robinson's achievement is bittersweet, though, because it also signifies the end of something that's kept her going for so long. As Robinson put it, it's been "the most high point in my life."

Robinson said she cannot imagine life without college. Maybe, she said, she'll look in-to auditing an Italian culture course that caught her eye this summer.

"You know what?" she said. "They can take your health, but they can never take the knowledge away from you that's in your head."

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