Some people leave school and never look back. Others just can’t stay away. College student Elise Schimke noticed an older couple auditing one of her classes… and decided to find out more about them.
It’s safe to say that for the nearly 45,000 students at UW-Madison, time spent on the isthmus is a milestone, an exhilarating layover between their childhood and their career. But, scattered amongst crowds of Snapchatting 20-somethings, there is a smaller, silent population for whom education is a lifestyle: senior guest auditors.
Senior guest auditors are Wisconsin residents 60 years or older who are allowed to take classes free of charge as long as they are simply silent observers rather than students in search of a degree. non-degree-earning, silent observers. As an undergraduate, I’d always felt I was missing something by not hearing what hearing what another generation had to say: So, after four years of wondering, I decided it was time to ask an auditor to break their silence and while I listened.
I got twice what I bargained for when I met Mary and Omer Jones in my last Shakespearean literature course as an undergraduate. Married for 66 years, their often matching winter apparel and outstanding attendance record caught my eye; the fact that they had been auditing since 1990 caught my attention and started our conversation.
Taking one class a semester for 27 years (plus four more adds Mary), the Jones’ have taken more than 50 classes together. They prefer afternoon classes.
“We’re not morning people,” says Mary Jones.
They sound like any other undergraduate on campus. And, as it turns out, Mary and Omer were once both undergraduates at UW. Both began their undergraduates degrees in the 1940s: Mary traveled from Oconto, Wisconsin in 1945 to complete a degree in nursing–along with education and library sciences, one of three programs openly available to women at that time. Omer–originally from Osseo, Wisconsin–was returning to study accounting (and later psychology) after his more than two years of service in WWII when the two met.
Mary and Omer’s shared educational experience at UW continued to color their careers in the years following their marriage. Omer’s master’s degree in Industrial Psychology led him to a wealth of occupations for and within the State of Wisconsin: his first job in the University Extensions’ student personnel program was later followed by time at the General Telephone Company of Wisconsin, and then within the state’s divisions of Health & Social Services, Transportation, and Labor Relations & Personnel.
In addition to taking care of she and Omer’s four children, Mary spent her nursing career not only healing, but helping other nurses learn. After working at the Wisconsin General Hospital, she joined Signe Skott Cooper at the UW Extension, where the newly-developed nursing department was just beginning to create a program of continuing education classes. Mary herself returned to school to earn her MA in the History of Science–but her revisit of student life was all too brief. Upon her retirement in 1990, Mary promptly began auditing. She made sure to save a seat in class for Omer, who followed her only weeks later.
“We have other forms of entertainment, but auditing classes is one of ours–instead of playing bridge, or that kind of thing, we audit classes,” says Mary.
This story was produced by Elise Schimke.