BANGOR, Maine — In 1939, Jessie Jones-White walked on crutches from Union Street to Beal College on Central Street every day. Despite foot surgery to combat polio, which she suffered when she was 8 months old, nothing could stand between Jones-White and her education.
Yet when it was time for Jones to graduate with a degree in account bookkeeping and stenography, $5 separated her from the diploma she wouldn’t receive until 75 years later.
The 99-year-old woman finally was awarded her diploma Friday at a small ceremony at Beal College, a career and associate degree school founded in 1891.
“I have the Jones-White stubbornness — hang on like a bulldog if I want something,” said the Belfast resident.
Beal University President Allen Stehle presented Jones-White with a diploma, gift, cap and gown.
“It just completes my life, I think. It was something I missed, not having a diploma,” said Jones-White.
Self-education has been the theme of her life. She completed first and second grade in one year — skipping third grade entirely. Today, she sews her own clothing, cooks her own meals and spends most of her days learning by researching healthy living on the Internet. The 99-year-old said she takes no prescription medications and tries to “stay away from hospitals and doctors.”
“I try to learn something new every day, even if it’s just a word or a way of doing something,” she said.
About three months ago, Dona Gilbert, a teacher from Winterport, contacted Stehle about the possibility of getting Jones-White a diploma.
“This woman has done so much in her life, she needs that completion,” said Gilbert.
Instead, Stehle said he decided to throw a party.
“She’s able to close the circle on her educational pursuits. It’s like winning a race and not getting the trophy,” said Stehle, who also believes Jones-White’s story can help students today.
“Knowing she waited 75 years sends a strong message to people to rededicate themselves [to their education] and think along the same lines,” said Stehle.
Gilbert connected with Jones-White through Jones-White’s brother, who met Gilbert’s father at a nursing home in Colorado.
“It really does mean something to have an education,” said Gilbert of Jones-White’s story, “It’s not just about getting jobs. It’s about, inside, knowing you can accomplish something,” she said.
Jones-White sees mental and physical health as a way to a happy life, “greet people with a smile even if you don’t feel like it, it makes it that much better,” said Jones-White.
“She sets a good moral example, just being kind to people,” said Jones-White’s son, Bill White, of Belfast.
Jones-White’s connection with Beal College began when her uncle Fred left $500 to send her to school. Seventy-five years later, with diploma in hand, Jones-White said she would still like to go to school every day, if she had the strength.
“If you have a dream, follow it. Don’t ever give up, even if it seems impossible,” said Jones-White.