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80-year-old too busy to celebrate graduation today from college


Don't expect Mary Sanford Williams at the Baltimore City Community College commencement exercises today.

She might be the college's oldest graduate, but the 80-year-old has things to do.

There are summer school classes, reading she needs to do and cleaning in her three-floor Baltimore home.

Besides, she doesn't have the energy for an all-day affair. "Well, you know, I'm 80 years old," says the West Baltimore resident. "When you get to be 80, there's only so much you can do. Besides, I'm in summer school already, so I'm busy."

Williams is only a third of the way into her schooling. Today the mother of four and grandmother of seven will receive an associate's degree so she can be a legal assistant.

But she is already one semester into course work at the University of Baltimore. And after earning her bachelor's degree, she fully expects to complete three years of law school.

She figures she'll be about 85 by the time she's a lawyer. And then what?

"I'll practice, of course," she says. "I don't intend to open my own office. I would be content to work with someone else."

Williams might be 80, but she looks and acts like she's going on 60. She still climbs ladders and paints the walls of houses -- though she says she probably shouldn't be doing that anymore. Her hair is tinged purple -- she's a frequent patron of local salons. And she laments the fact that she doesn't date anymore.

"It's a funny thing when you're 80, men don't want you," she says. "They want a woman in her 60s, 50s or 40s even."

Williams also has an uncanny ability to recall stories and prices. There was the $8,000 house her father bought in Detroit, the $723 new Ford her brother bought as a teenager and the $500-a-year college tuition for her son at Howard University.

She is a talker, not shy of spouting sharp opinions. Becoming a lawyer, even at her age, seemed a natural thing to do after she retired from being a nurse's aide two years ago.

Now she spends her days and nights taking the bus to school and back, studying and reading, and talking to the young men and women in her classes.

They called her Miss Mary at BCCC, said Amelia Lazarus, coordinator of the legal assistance program that Williams was in. Lazarus taught her in four or five classes.

"She gave a very different perspective to some of our younger students, which was very valuable," said Lazarus. "She had a great attitude, and she really livened up class."

Lazarus, like most others at school, had no idea until later that Williams was 80. "I'm really glad she's carrying this out," she said. "I think it's fantastic. She's a real testament to the sentiment that you're never too old to do what you want."

Williams grew up in Detroit after her father, a cotton farmer from Georgia, migrated north for a job. She remembers the beautiful house they grew up in, with the ornate bathroom and the fish pond on their 2 acres. When her brothers caught a frog, she knew there were would be frog legs for dinner.

Six months after they moved to Detroit, her father was found dead in a vacant lot. She doesn't know what happened. "I can hardly remember him," she says. "I try so hard to remember him."

She grew up one of nine children and remembers her mother going to court when the bank threatened to take their house, claiming the mortgage payments were late. Her mother won. Williams dreamed of becoming a lawyer as a teenager, even working in a law office one summer when she was 16.

But her mother wasn't keen on the idea. Lawyers were liars, her mother told her, and so she urged her daughter to take business courses in high school so she could learn employable skills such as shorthand and typing. Besides, she didn't have the money for college.

Williams married at 19. After she graduated from high school, a stream of jobs followed.

She worked as an accounting clerk and stenographer, leaving Detroit for Washington, D.C., in 1962.

She worked as a typist in the Pentagon and two years later decided to go to real estate school, a career she figured would help her put four children through college. It did.

Williams moved to Baltimore in 1980, at the age of 54, after her children were grown. "When you're 54, 80 feels ancient," she says, laughing.

"I just can't believe that years went by so fast," she adds, showing off the pictures of her children -- from babies to college graduates to parents -- that clutter the mantels of her multiple fireplaces. "I hate to think how old they're getting."

She renovated and sold houses before going back to school and becoming a nurse's assistant. She retired from that 2 1/2 years ago.

Because she was a senior citizen, going to BCCC was free. So, Williams figured, why not pursue the law degree she never seemed to have the time and money for before? "I like to learn; I'm always trying to learn as much as I can about everything," she said.

She will graduate from BCCC with a 3.5 grade point average. School has been tough at times, especially algebra. She had to be tutored Sundays and evenings to pass.

Williams is in good health and says she hopes she'll be able to make it through law school. Even if she never practices as a lawyer, the journey will have been well worth the effort, she says. "I think that I'll be grateful that I got that far," she says, "that I had the chance to do this."


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