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82-year-old receives Carey master’s degree

GULFPORT, Miss. (BP)–When Olive McKenna received her master’s degree at William Carey College, television cameras captured the moment. For reporters, her graduation was news: she is 82 years old. For McKenna, it was the realization of a lifelong dream.

“It’s something I wanted to do,” she said. “It was one of my goals. When my daughter began working on her doctorate, I decided to go back to school myself. She told me, ‘Mom, go for it.'”

So she did. Friends had attended classes at Carey’s Gulfport campus, so she drove over to talk about admission to the graduate program. She met with Gerald Hasselman, professor of education, who encouraged her to enter the program.

“Everyone had a positive attitude. They were very polite, very friendly, so I enrolled,” McKenna said. “When I finished the last class, I asked Dr. Hasselman, ‘Do you have a specialist’s program? That’s what I’d like to do next.'”

McKenna doesn’t lack for something to do. After graduation, she signed a contract for another year of teaching kindergarten at Waveland Elementary School. She has taught for 49 years: 20 years in the first grade, 29 in kindergarten. She has never retired.

“I found out from teaching the first grade that kindergarten is where it all starts. Everybody’s trying to raise scores in testing, but the kids need a better hold on the skills required. If I can get them to love reading, then they are a step ahead,” she explained. Her kindergartners are reading at the third level of first grade.

“I start them with the basic reader that has lots of pictures and some words, and we work up from there,” she said. “They’re always so impatient to get to the more difficult levels.”

McKenna is one of four kindergarten teachers at the school, where they refer to her affectionately as “Miss Ollie.” In addition to reading, she teaches her students addition and subtraction, computer skills, character building, French and spelling. Her class had their first spelling test recently — they all made perfect scores.

“They’re like sponges,” she said. “They’re so anxious to learn.”

A native of Schenectady, N.Y., McKenna has been a resident of Bay St. Louis since 1963, when her husband was one of five managers who came to set up Stennis Space Center. She found a teaching job immediately, as well as a position playing organ for her church. She still has the organ job, and she still sings in the choir, as well as an occasional light opera. (In addition to her background in education, she studied voice and piano at the Julliard School of Music, the Albany Conservatory of Music and the Gregorian Institute of Music.) She also fits line dancing into her busy schedule. In fact, time management was one of her biggest challenges during the two years she worked on her degree.

“I had to plan my study time,” she said. “After class, I made it a habit to get right on to my studies. I looked ahead on the syllabus and tried to do my reading in advance.

“My new computer helped with the work so much,” she added.

But McKenna said that education is an endless pursuit, and she advises people with an interest in furthering their education to just do it.

“There is no set time for anyone to go to school,” she said. “Don’t think you can’t pursue it. It’s how badly you want to do this.”

She paused, considered the colorful pictures strung around her classroom, and smiled.

“Life has been very good to me,” she said. “I have kept myself busy.”
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: SENIOR GRADUATION and MISS OLLIE GRADUATES.

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  • Kathie Chute