Rosemarie Howerton

December 17, 2015

Howerton to realize decades-old dream of a degree

by Christi Mathis

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Rosemarie Howerton decided to return to college after taking some time off to work, but she quickly ran into a problem as she began filling out scholarship applications. 

The online applications only listed birth years going back to 1940. Howerton was born in 1930. She laughs as she recalls thinking that perhaps someone was trying to tell her something. If they were, she didn’t listen. 

Howerton did go back to college, and a month and a day before her 86th birthday, she will earn her bachelor’s degree in Workforce Education and Development during Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s Dec. 19 commencement. 

When Howerton, a lifelong Carterville resident, graduated from high school in 1948, going to college was a dream -- one her family could ill-afford. 

“My family didn’t have much, but a lot of other people didn’t either so I didn’t realize it.  I’ve always liked school. I wanted to go to SIU but financially, I couldn’t,” she recalls. 

Instead, she got a clerk typist position in the engineering department of Sangamo Electric, a condenser factory located in what is now the Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge area. After the business closed, she went on to work at a couple of other factories in the area, all of which eventually closed their Southern Illinois locations. Howerton next took her talents to the Marion Veterans Affairs Medical Center, and then to the Department of Justice, initially working at the prison in Marion and later becoming an auditor. 

Along the way, by the late 1950s, Howerton decided she needed a more advanced education to better support herself and advance in her career. She enrolled at SIU, taking night classes each Monday and Wednesday from 4:30 to 9:30 p.m. as she continued to work. She said Sundays and Tuesdays were all about studying during her free time.   

“I paid $25 each quarter for tuition and that included book rental,” she remembers.  

Work and family obligations kept her from completing her studies though. She married at the age of 20 and worked her entire life until retiring in 1988. She helped with nieces and nephews and tried to keep up with modern technology, even embracing the computer age.  

But, that burning desire to earn a degree never faded. About five years ago, she had open heart surgery and after healing from a triple bypass, she came to the conclusion that it was time. With the encouragement of her sister-in-law, a longtime teacher who even made an appointment for her to visit campus, Howerton decided to see if it was possible to complete her degree. 

She was encouraged to finish a couple of prerequisites at John A. Logan College in Carterville because she could attend free due to her age. By fall 2014, Howerton was at SIU, having completed enough hours with credits from her classes more than 50 years ago to have earned “junior” status. 

“I was determined to get my degree and I’ve done it!  It’s something I did for myself. I’ve enjoyed it very much,” she said. “The teachers and students have been very, very good to me. It’s been quite a journey but I’ve enjoyed it.” 

One of the first realizations Howerton had was that she wasn’t as technologically savvy as she thought she was. 

“When I first started college, we only had typewriters.  I’ve kept up with computers and everything through the years, doing volunteer work, serving as the treasurer at my church and for another organization. But, when I got back to school and in technology classes, I learned so much, including a lot that the other students already knew,” she recalls. 

She is grateful that Adel Moustafa, a master’s degree candidate in workforce education and development from Saudi Arabia, took her under his wing as she played catch-up. He’s just one of the many faculty, staff and students Howerton said have been instrumental in supporting her dream. 

“I’ve met the most wonderful people at SIU.  I’ve gotten a very good family through my college days. My SIU family has supported me the whole way. I thank everybody in my family, here and especially the Lord for taking care of me,” Howerton said. 

She’s looking forward to participating in graduation ceremonies. In fact, Howerton said she has proclaimed in recent years that she would be getting her diploma if she had to roll across the stage in a wheelchair to do it. But, she’ll be making the trek on her feet, she’s happy to say. 

Classmates have asked the octogenarian if she intends to get a new job after she graduates, but after a lifetime of work, that’s not on Howerton’s radar. She does have plans though. 

“I think it’s important to stay busy so you don’t feel sorry for yourself.  I’ve been very fortunate in my life. Everybody has problems but it’s all in the way you look at them and how you overcome them. I was bound and determined that no matter what, life is going to be okay and it has been,” she said. 

Howerton will continue her volunteer work, stay active and take more classes at SIU. She’s not sure if she’ll complete her master’s degree, but she thoroughly enjoys learning and doesn’t want to stop anytime soon.  In fact, the importance of an education was the topic of a speech she gave in class at SIU. 

“I want to impress on people that education is very important if you are going to be successful,” she said.