BLUEFIELD, Va. (BP)–She was 64 years old when she learned how to swim. At 65, she got her first driver’s license. Now, at 78 years of age, Cleta Childress Francis is the oldest person ever to receive a four-year degree from Bluefield College.
Known as “Maggie” to her friends, the BC art major that lives with her sister in Bluefield, Virginia, earned her bachelor’s degree in May of this year. Born and raised in Welch, West Virginia, Maggie was the first person in her family to graduate from high school. She later married Carmel Francis and together they raised nine children. From her husband, she learned much about dedication and setting goals.
“He was a hard worker,” Maggie recalled about her husband. “He drove a truck for Smith Transfer and did other jobs. If he were living today, he would be so proud of me.”
College had not always been a consideration for Maggie, who also has ten grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren. In fact, it was not until her children were grown and she had overcome a host of struggles in life and had became a widow that she decided she wanted to further her education.
“I was bored,” said Maggie about her initial desire to attend college. “I didn’t have anything to do, and I sat and looked at the walls and cried. I knew that I was too old for that, so I decided to do something about it.”
That’s when Maggie learned about Bluefield College’s continuing education program for senior citizens. The program allows seniors over the age of 55 to enroll and attend classes for free, provided they have earned a high school diploma. Maggie signed up for her first class and earned an “A.” The rest, as they say, is history.
“I just loved it here [at Bluefield College],” Maggie said. “I loved learning, and I loved being around young people. They helped keep me young. They treated me just like I was their favorite grandmother.”
Before graduating from BC, Maggie became a member of the school’s National Honor Society. She also won an Art Award and first place in a BC art exhibit. During her college days, she taught a few ceramics classes, volunteered to teach ceramics to students at a local elementary school, and became a part of a student study trip abroad to London, England. Most recently, however, Maggie has been asked to speak to seniors of local civic clubs about her college experience.
“I never would have thought that I could do that,” Maggie said about her first speaking engagement. “I couldn’t believe that I was getting up to give a speech in front of a crowd.”
In fact, Maggie’s college success and her recent speeches about her college days are particularly surprising considering she stuttered so severely as a child that she could barely talk, and her family didn’t believe she would ever finish school.
“My family used to tell me that I would never amount to anything, because I couldn’t speak plain,” Maggie recalled, “but I showed them. I think they just told me that to push me along. My dad was a minister, and he said when my tongue got loosed, God loosed it at both ends, because I talk so much.”
Maggie’s advice to seniors is the same advice she gave herself several years ago when she started to pursue her college degree: “If I can do it, anyone can.”
“So many old people just sit at home and throw themselves a pity party,” Maggie said. “I didn’t want to be like that, and I don’t want anyone else to be like that either. I love people so much, I want to help them.”
Although Maggie graduated from Bluefield College in May, she still plans to spend a lot of time on the BC campus. In addition to helping with an art class or two, she plans to volunteer to help the Admissions Office with recruitment efforts. It’s the least she can do, she says, for all that the college has done for her.
“Now that I’ve graduated I don’t want to leave,” Maggie said. “I’ve learned so many things, and the people here [at Bluefield College] have been so good to me.”