Never too Late to Follow Your Heart: An 82-Year-Old Goes to Law School

By Jeremy Goldstein

When the Honorable Elijah Huling, Jr. first saw the 82-year-old woman walking into his medical malpractice class at Syracuse University, he thought she was a parent. It never crossed the judge’s mind that Jeanette Goldstein might be one of his students.

But she was.

“I was shocked,” the visiting law professor said.

Judge Huling’s next reaction was that Jeanette must be a part-time student at the College of Law.

But she wasn’t.

And so Judge Huling chuckled, recalling that first introduction in an interview at school. “Amazing,” he said. In fact, the Baldwinsville, N.Y., judge says Jeanette Goldstein was one of the most remarkable students he has ever had as a visiting professor at Syracuse University’s College of Law. She was, in fact, so remarkable that Judge Huling went home to have a heart-to-heart talk with his children after he met her. His children spent about a half hour per week-night on their homework, and Judge Huling scolded them.

You’d better spend a little more time on your studies because I have an 80-year-old student who’s working a lot harder than you!

Jeanette really did work hard.

Her determined motto: Be prepared.

Judge Huling, like all Jeanette’s Syracuse law professors, said Jeanette was always prepared for class. She studied hard for one of Judge Huling’s exams and refused to sign a petition against him after classmates decided the test was unfairly difficult.

Jeanette just stared at the grade next to her assigned student number after grades were posted. She had cataracts and thought she was reading the grade wrong. That couldn’t be a B next to her name, could it?

Jeanette asked Judge Huling to check the grade. “Is that mine?” she asked.

Yes, it was. Jeanette had scored one of the highest grades on an exam that most of her classmates thought had been one of the most difficult of their law school careers. Other students would be pleased just to pass, but Jeanette wanted a good grade.

“I’m amazed,” said Judge Huling, smiling during his interview. “The competition is intense and cut-throat here, and she’s sticking herself right in that competition. She is in the pool, swimming with all the rest of the sharks. It takes courage to do that. I know the environment, and to step out of a familiar environment takes a lot of courage. Courage and fortitude. She just gets in there and plugs away.”

Judge Huling didn’t know that going to law school had been my mother’s dream.

As long as I can remember, my mother wanted to be a lawyer. In fact, she has had this desire since 1955 when she flew to Japan with my father, David Goldstein, on a business trip. My father’s company made movie camera lenses, and my father was always looking for new optical products to sell. In 1955, my father signed a contract with Olympus Corporation of Japan to be the exclusive U.S. importer of their microscopes. My mother enjoyed sitting in on the contract negotiations. In fact, she came to feel she could do a better job than the lawyers.

Could she be a lawyer? My mother had five young children at the time and lived in Rochester, N.Y. She had someone to help her with the children, but still… where could she even go to law school? Rochester didn’t have one.

Forty-one years later, my father died and my mother was grief-stricken. Like so many widows, she’d lost the man she’d loved for over 50 years and didn’t know what to do with herself. Then she thought of her old dream, becoming a lawyer. “Better late than never,” she said.

But, what would we – her children – think? There were eight of us now, all of us grown adults. “I didn’t consider other people’s reactions so much as considering my children’s reactions,” my mother said. “And what surprised me is that even though I was convinced everyone would think I was crazy, they all supported me and thought it was a great idea!”

Here comes the student.

My mother got up the nerve to take the LSAT and apply to two law schools – Nova Southeastern University in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, and Syracuse. To her surprise, both schools accepted her! My mother chose Syracuse because of its convenience – a little over an hour away from where she lived in Rochester.

Margery Connor, a former associate dean for student affairs at the College of Law who retired while my mother was a third-year student there, said that the school accepted her because her LSAT scores and her graduate school grades were good. “I looked at her resume,” Ms. Connor said. “Her numbers were enough to let her in.”

The school couldn’t discriminate against Jeanette because of her age. Besides, Ms. Connor said, “I really advocate for the non-traditional student.”

Ms. Connor knew that Jeanette’s age might actually benefit both students and faculty. “She had a point of view that she could share with people,” Ms. Connor said. It would come from her age.

“She is most special because she has had not only life experiences but she’s had business experiences too,” said Professor Frederick J. Micale, an adjunct professor. “She brings that to class and makes a real contribution. I think it’s not only something I appreciate, but other students do, too.”

Professor Micale said students respect the courage of someone Jeanette’s age to undertake the rigors of law. Syracuse had students from all over the world, and some had language and cultural barriers.

In Jeanette’s case, the barriers were physical, Professor Micale pointed out. Jeanette’s eyes and ears were starting to fail. She sat attentively in the front row of the lecture hall because she couldn’t see the board or screen if she sat any farther back. On the negative side, while sitting in front she couldn’t hear the students in the rear.

Administrators wondered if she had the stamina to stick it out.

“She drew a lot of attention and people had doubts,” Ms. Connor said. “Law school is rigorous. You don’t get a lot of rest. I was worried about her capacity to do it all.”

Ms. Connor suggested that Jeanette enroll part-time.

Jeanette refused.

So, in the fall of 2000, Jeanette sat down beside students in their 20’s and started scribbling away on that legal pad. She was the mother of eight children and the grandmother of 22. That was about the age of most of her classmates, too. There were a few doctors, engineers or social workers in their 50’s, and a retired nun had once taken courses at the law school. But Jeanette was the oldest. And, while most of the younger students clicked away on their laptops in class, Jeanette took notes in script. She couldn’t type or use a computer.

Students set their water bottles down and sat next to her, amazed at her initiative. “Everybody was talking about this 80-year-old,” said Jason Cleckner, a 23-year-old classmate who sat next to Jeanette in Civil Procedures class.

“Was there really a president named Ronald Reagan?”

Professors were dumbfounded that they actually had a student in class who had lived through Watergate or the Reagan and Carter eras, ancient events and presidents to these students who were born years after. Jeanette could nod her head when professors spoke of the Great Depression, too. She had lived through it.

“I can make a lot of references to something that happened quite a while ago,” said Professor Christian C. Day.

Whatever grades she earned in any of her classes were hers. Professors did not help her out. That’s because each student was assigned a number, and the number was all the professors ever saw on exams or papers – without ever knowing whose it was. Although Jeanette couldn’t type exams on a computer in class, the school assigned her a typist who sat beside her. Thus, all her work was evaluated without her professors ever knowing that it was hers.

The instructors, moreover, graded on a bell curve. Very few students received As, and a few did receive Ds and Fs. My mother passed all her courses and survived, while a small percentage of students were not performing up to expectation and were asked to leave.

To be honest, it wasn’t easy for my mother that first year either. She had a master’s degree in social work. But, she said, “social work was a breeze in comparison to law school.”

Maybe it was because my mother had been out of school for so many years. “The students coming directly out of college, they knew the shortcuts,” my mother said. “They knew aspects to get through the course much easier than I did.”

Nevertheless, she persevered that first year, even pulling all-nighters when she needed to.

Ms. Connor admitted that my mother had a rocky time. “The first year is the hardest. But she managed to get through it.”

After that first year, my mother started recommending classes to the students who were a year or two behind her.

“She was right on target, too,” said Chanel Hudson, 24, of San Francisco.

As the semesters passed and graduation neared, my mother’s confidence and physical strength grew. Each day, she was forced to take a brisk walk. She’d walk from her graduate student dormitory to the bus stop, and from the bus to the law school. Then, there was the return trip at night. The wind was often blowing and it seemed to snow for days in Syracuse. The winters were cruelly gray and cold. My mother fell on the ice one day during her third year and broke her wrist.

She got a cast, and kept right on wheeling her black book bag to class.

An enrichment for all

She was an inspiration to countless professors, counselors and students. She enriched the school demonstrating that someone her age can handle such a rigorous commitment.

Remember those administrators who had doubts that she could make it full-time? “She proved them all wrong,” Ms. Connor said.

My mother did not hesitate to speak up in class. Based on her experiences with my father’s company, she can discuss distributorships in her international relations class, and then wheel her black book bag to the next lecture hall to share what she knows about negotiations.

“I admired her viewpoint,” said Professor Day.

“She has a good background of life’s experiences that I don’t have,” said Judge Huling.

“She brought the life experiences you couldn’t get from a textbook, the stuff of real law,” said Professor Micale.

In fact, though Professor Micale has thirty years of international law experience, “She knows more than I do,” he said. “When your mother speaks, she becomes the teacher and I become the student.”

He said he felt privileged to have had her in his class. “It’s just an absolute special treat to me because – and I think the best way I can sum it up is – I can truly become a student in my own class by listening to her, and that is the ultimate.”

My mother used to complain that her back bothered her. Luckily, any physical problems my mother had when entering law school began to disappear. In fact, my mother didn’t have time to think about her physical ailments. Her back problem miraculously disappeared. So did some of her concerns about the future. “You don’t think about getting old or dying while you are busy everyday,” my mother said.

Being around young people energized my mother, and her outlook on life brightened. She began to realize that it wasn’t healthy for older people to move into retirement homes with other elderly people. It was far better to be around a mix of people who still spoke about joyful things and didn’t complain about physical ailments all day.

The benefits ran both ways, too. Not only did my mother feel better about herself, succeeding in younger camp, but those younger students profited from her shared experiences. Her comments about what she had learned from my father’s international business experiences piqued their curiosity, Professor Micale said, and “the questions seemed to roll from that point.”

Ms. Connor said she “said so many prayers” that my mother would make it through school. But, she added, “her success was based on her determination and conscientiousness. She really worked at it.”

The Graduate!

Ms. Connor read my mother’s name at the graduation ceremony on May 15th when she graduated at 83. “It enriched my life,” said Ms. Connor of the experience. “My hat’s off to her.”

Professor Micale said he hoped that he had as much vitality as my mother had when he gets to be her age. Another professor said maybe he’d go back to school and study medicine the way he had always wanted.

My mother does not need to work, but she is already checking out the job market with her classmates. She’d like to find a 9-5 job with the government down in Washington, D.C. near four of her children. At her age, she needs a little flex time. “I certainly would not want to work for a big law firm where you work 80 hours per week,” she said.

Leave that to the younger grads.

I asked my mom if she had any words of wisdom for other people her age who hadn’t yet accomplished what they wanted to in life. She said, “Do whatever you want to do now, not next year or the year after. If you really want to do something, get on the road to achieving your goal today. It is never too late.”

Jeanette Goldstein's amazing story can be found in the book "Grandma Goes To Law School - Why It's Never Too Late To Live Your Dreams" (from which this is excerpted) The book is available at www.dreamhousebooks.com or by calling the author, Jeremy Goldstein at 305-534-2351.

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