Because she is 90 and in need of a caregiver’s assistance, June Gordon Marks Patinkin rose early last Saturday to get into her cap and gown for her college graduation.
By 10 a.m., a van was waiting at her Lincoln Park assisted living facility. One of her 16 grandchildren was there to help her into it, and he soon was pushing her in a wheelchair under the ivy-draped archway on 57th Street toward the University of Chicago’s quadrangle.
June, one of 1,350 students of the class of 2018, was about to become the oldest graduate since the school was founded in 1890.
A TV camerawoman asked June how it felt. She smiled and said it was wonderful, because you know, she’d started here in 1944 so it took only 75 years or so to graduate.
“You can learn all your life,” she said, “and you should always follow your heart.”
The Gothic buildings were just as she recalled, back when girls like her danced the jitterbug, had dates at soda shops and, of course, followed the war.
Her two older brothers had been in the war, one wounded in Italy, and she still could picture her mother weeping in their Hyde Park apartment when the telegram arrived.
Then the graduation processional’s bagpipes began and June’s grandson wheeled her into line. A part of her was frustrated by the chair – she had always expected to be the older lady who took brisk walks. Yet she resolved to not let it keep her from this moment.
June had entered the University of Chicago just shy of age 17. She studied two years, then transferred to Northwestern University for two more. But those credits weren’t processed when she transferred back to the U of C in 1949, an energizing time when she was political editor of The Maroon, the college paper.
Wanting to be a journalist, June left that summer for Paris and found work in the communications department of the Marshall Plan, the American-led effort to rebuild Europe. But a Chicago suitor named Hal Patinkin chased her there, and they decided to elope and marry, with her French landlady as witness.
They returned to Chicago as two like-minded political souls, working for Adlai Stevenson’s presidential runs in the 1950s. Hal, a businessman, chaired the first campaign of longtime congressman Abner Mikva.
June kept taking courses at the University of Chicago, but in time she had five sons and her pursuit of a degree faded.
Four of those sons were with her on campus Saturday. The fifth, a U of C Law School grad who was lost to cardiac arrhythmia in 2005, was there in spirit. So was June’s husband, a one-time U of C student himself, who passed on in 2016.
Not long ago, June had mentioned to her family her regret that she’d never received her degree. That prompted a daughter-in-law to dig out June’s transcripts from Northwestern.
The U of C registrar was skeptical. The transfer-credits would have to be rigorously verified.
And now it was June’s turn on stage at the University of Chicago.
Her grandson wheeled her forward as Stacie Kent, collegiate assistant professor of history, called out the name from her student days:
“June Gordon Marks, bachelor of political science. At 90 years old, June is the oldest graduate in the history of the college.”
Her fellow graduates in the class of 2018 exploded in applause.
Moments later, I and other members of our family stood behind my mom as photographers recorded the moment.
Then, in a kind of victory lap, we wheeled her through the quad where she’d begun her college journey almost 75 years before.
In cap, gown and wheelchair, and with a faraway look on her face, she said it was just as she remembered it.
Mark Patinkin is a columnist for the Providence Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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