Campus & Community

‘I’m not going to stop just because I have a degree’

4 min read

Extension School graduate Elizabeth McNeil plans to keep on taking classes

When Elizabeth McNeil was asked to suggest a place to meet to talk about what it’s like to be graduating from the Harvard Extension School at 82, she had an immediate answer: the Everett Public Library.

“This is the library I went to as a child,” she says, settling into an armchair there as comfortably as she would drop onto the sofa in her own living room. “I wanted to read everything.”

McNeil, who last spring retired from the Harvard University Health Services after more than a quarter century, didn’t intend to go for a degree when she signed up for her first course.

It was on the history of Boston, offered by Thomas O’Connor, now retired from the faculty of Boston College. Initially, she thought she would just “take it for fun.” But she realized that as an auditor, she wouldn’t get as much out of the course and wouldn’t have the same discipline to make it to class and keep up with the readings. “So I decided to take it for credit.”

One course led to another, but only after completing 12 of them did she decide to pursue a degree. The required essay was the last big hurdle, and she wasn’t sure she would be able to clear it. But once she buckled down to do it, she realized she needn’t have worried. “I had no problem with the essay.”

On the very last day, she turned it in.

Her topic? “Procrastination.”

It took her a while to declare her concentration, too, which is social sciences.

This spring semester she’s been busy with one course on African films and another on drama, which just before the show debuted, brought her over to see a run-through of part of the new “Island of Slaves” production by the American Repertory Theatre at the Loeb Drama Center.

“It’s like a whole performance,” rather than a rehearsal, which can be tedious to watch if the same scene is repeated over and over, she says. At the run-through she observed how the director made careful notes as the performers went through their paces, and then afterward discussed his observations and offered his guidance.

She clearly found it fascinating, but it made for a late night. “I got home at midnight.” And now that she’s retired, getting to class has no longer been a simple matter of walking across Harvard Yard, but rather an expedition typically involving two subway lines (Red and Orange) and a bus.

There is, it appears, a fair bit of stability in McNeil’s life. Born in Chelsea, she moved to Everett at age 1, back to Chelsea at 17, and then back to Everett when she married. “I’ve been in the same house 45 years. I’ve got cousins on my street who have been there probably 60 years.”

Even when she and her now-deceased husband separated, she kept the house and he moved into a place just a stone’s throw away. They continued to get off at the same bus stop, and although they went home in different directions from there, many of their friends didn’t realize they were no longer together, she says.

But the world of books and learning has changed in ways that little Betty, as a child, could never have imagined when she would visit the Frederick E. Parlin Memorial Library and dream of reading all the books that it contains.

Nowadays libraries are important for their ability to connect scholars with other libraries, and it’s clear from a visit that the reference librarians at the Parlin were essential members of McNeil’s team.

She singles out Stacy DeBole and Mark Parisi for special thanks, and DeBole returns the compliment: “She’s been an inspiration to us. We’re very proud of her. She really keeps our feet to the fire.”

“I have a computer at home, but often I end up coming here,” McNeil says. She’s had coaching from the librarians on how to get into Harvard databases from the Everett Library, and how to find what DeBole calls the “esoteric materials” she needed in her course work. But they insist she’s done the actual work of the research herself.

“I’ve had people much younger throw up their hands and quit,” says DeBole. “I don’t know if I could have done it myself.”

McNeil is looking forward to having her son and three daughters in attendance for her graduation – and if a fifth ticket can be wangled somehow, her daughter-in-law as well.

And what will she do after graduation? Take more courses. “I’m not going to stop just because I have a degree.”