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A dying mother's educational
dream fulfilled. By Holly Love
I remember roaming the halls of the Annenberg School for Communication
as a child. I would sneak around corners trying not to be seen, pretending
that I was Charles Schulz's Snoopy evading the Red Baron. It was a game
I played until lunchtime arrived.
Those were the 1970s, when my mother, Mary Jane Love,
one of Dean George Gerbner's secretaries, occasionally brought me to work
when my babysitter was sick. My presence in the office was accepted gracefully
by the Annenberg staff, who were more than friendly toward me. It was
just one way that the University accommodated Mom. Years later, Penn accommodated
her again with a gift beyond measure.
Though a non-smoker, Mom was diagnosed with lung cancer
in 1979. The challenge of battling a debilitating disease was particularly
overwhelming for her. She was already working a full-time job, raising
me single-handedly, and pursuing her undergraduate art-history degree
from Penn at night. She was also legally blind in one eye, with failing
vision in the other.
1980, she was on permanent disability. She couldn't make it to the office
-- or to the classroom. Her fervent dream of earning a college degree
was over, and she knew it.
There were remissions, but they were short. Her unpredictable
health was the major reason that I reversed a solid decision about where
to start college in the fall of 1981. I was all signed up to attend Penn
State, which was 200 miles from home. Penn, where I had also been admitted,
was only eight miles away. At the 11th hour I decided to stay near Mom
and go to Penn. (In retrospect, a magnificent choice.)
Mom selflessly had left the decision completely up to
me. Even though Penn would cost us less -- because her University employment
meant my tuition would be waived -- she never pressured me to choose it.
She maintained that my college education was sacred, and that I could
go wherever I wished.
During my first semester, I watched Mom weaken. The
days got shorter, as did each of her breaths. Several times, I accompanied
her to the emergency room when she couldn't get enough air. In a taxi
we would ride to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania -- not
to any of the hospitals closer to our Upper Darby home. She always insisted
on being taken to HUP, because of the exceptional kindness with which
she was treated there.
By Christmastime, more remissions seemed unlikely. My
siblings flew in from their home states, saddened at the prospect of seeing
Mom for the last time.
It was my sister-in-law Marjohn who suggested the perfect
gift for my mother, and my brother George who set the wheels in motion.
Among others, he consulted with Katherine Pollak, vice dean in the College
of General Studies. It turned out that Mom had only one course to complete
for her Bachelor of Arts. She was obviously incapable of ever returning
to her studies. Would Penn possibly consider granting her degree anyway?
George needed only to petition Penn personnel with the
facts. Mom didn't have much longer to live. But before becoming disabled,
she continually conquered obstacles to make her education a priority.
She studied her heart out, consuming book after book on art -- ones not
even required for her courses. I recall it well, because she frequently
read long passages to me.
Nobody in the administrative chain let that one credit
bind him or her so closely to rules and regulations that a dying woman
was denied her dream. For that, my family and I will be eternally grateful.
I picked up the diploma at Logan Hall from Ms. Pollak, who complimented
my mother's course-work as well as her ability to raise children.
Three days later, my brothers and sister and I planned
the surprise. We had intended to take Mom out to a nice dinner first,
but because she was too sick to go out, we simply ordered pizza. After
we ate, George took out the large envelope. "Mom, this is something
that we're very happy to present to you. We believe you deserve it in
We all held our breath as she focused on the document.
She said, "I don't understand." Then she looked at our faces
and began to see the light. "You don't mean it," she said, and
by now she was shaking. "It's an honorary degree? It's not ..."
I remember that George held her hand as he answered
her. "No, Mom. This is as real as it gets. It's a bona fide diploma,
because you now have a bona fide degree. You have just graduated from
the University of Pennsylvania. Let us be the first to say 'Congratulations.'"
The way she cried is something I will never forget.
All of us cried, in that tiny apartment kitchen, surrounded by empty pizza
Mom lasted for one more fragile year. In that time,
she gave me another precious memory. I answered her phone call one afternoon
in my Hill House dorm room. After some weather talk, she told me that
she wanted to live to see three things: my college graduation, my wedding,
and my first child. Since she never saw those things, I am especially
glad that she saw her diploma.
She died at HUP on January 8, 1983, and in a last act
of loyalty to Penn, she donated her body to the medical school. There
is no doubt in my mind that she hung on until my winter break to give
me time to grieve before returning to school. My brother Kevin, SAMP'78,
suggested that I take a leave of absence and come to live with him
in California, but I continued with classes as scheduled. Mom would have
wanted it that way, and so did I.
During her memorial service at the Annenberg School,
Dr. Gerbner said that Mom's most outstanding trait was her "thirst
for knowledge." I lament that much of that thirst was left unquenched
-- she was only 56 at the time of her death.
But her Penn diploma, which hangs on the wall above
my own, is one of my most treasured reminders of her life.
Holly Love, EAS'85, works as a writer, editor, and singer.
She lives in Havertown, Pa.
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1999 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 1/6/99