June 13, 2002 11:00 pm
NEW GRAD: Lorna Spain has thoroughly enjoyed going back to school. She will receive her bachelor's degree Saturday. (The Observer/Phil Bullock).
NEW GRAD: Lorna Spain has thoroughly enjoyed going back to school. She will receive her bachelor's degree Saturday. (The Observer/Phil Bullock).

By Dick Mason

Observer Staff Writer

Hundreds of students will receive degrees at Eastern Oregon University's commencement Saturday, including one who was 43 years late for class.

Lorna Spain, 68, will receive a bachelor's degree in liberal studies five decades after she was awarded a scholarship to Eastern.

In 1952, Spain, then a Burns High School senior, was awarded a full one-year tuition scholarship after she won an Elks "Most Valuable Student'' contest. The scholarship was worth $120.

Spain chose instead to attend nursing school in Spokane. Eastern had not heard the last of her, however.

"My life had taken many turns but I had always wanted to go to college,'' Spain said.

In 1995, Spain had just retired after a 20-year career with Boise Cascade as a purchasing agent when she decided to enroll at Eastern. She brought the 1952 scholarship letter to Eastern and asked if it was still valid. Spain was politely told that it wasn't.

"I was being facetious. I didn't expect them to honor it, I just brought it as a point of interest,'' Spain said. "I was laughing at myself.''

Spain then enrolled at Eastern and began the journey of a lifetime.

Spain will take the final steps of this unlikely journey Saturday at EOU's commencement at 10 a.m. at Community Stadium.

Spain has grown remarkably over the past seven years. She had never played a string instrument before but now plays the violin in the Grande Ronde Symphony. She had never been interested in geology before entering EOU. Today, she has "fallen in love'' with the subject and was a teaching assistant for a geology lab at EOU.

"It's like a whole new world has opened to me in the small town of La Grande,'' said Spain, who minored in geology and music.

Spain said that the support system EOU has in place for students is a major reason why she has succeeded in earning her degree.

"It has so many elements in place to help students succeed,'' Spain said.

The Learning Center at Loso Hall is one of these elements. It offers math and writing tutors and much more. Spain credits the center with playing an instrumental role in her success.

She also speaks highly of her professors. Spain said that people such as English professor Sarah Witte, history professors Shapur Shahbazi and Greg Monahan, math teacher Kay Fior, geology professor Jay VanTassell and all the faculty in the music department helped her expand her understanding of the world.

VanTassell had a particularly big influence. Spain credits him with sparking a passionate interest in geology.

"I had never been interested in geology until I took a class from him during my senior year. Then I changed one of my minors to geology,'' Spain said.

VanTassell said that Spain made a remarkable contribution to his classes.

"She is a wonderful role model for younger students,'' Van Tassell said. "She is one of those people who has found the secret to being happy.''

"I enjoy young people,'' Spain said. "I enjoy them for their generation and who they are. They have so much to offer.''

Spain talks with younger students as if a generation gap does not exist.

"I never tried to mother any of them,'' Spain said.

Spain had long been interested in music but had not played an instrument since she played the clarinet in high school. She learned to play the violin after enrolling in Eastern. It was a struggle for her at first, but she progressed to the point of playing for the symphony.

Teachers who helped her significantly included Tony Marks, who let Spain play in a youth orchestra he directed. She enjoyed it immensely.

"It was a tremendous stepping stone,'' Spain said.

The difficulty of going to college in your 60s is that it is harder to remember things than it once was, Spain said. In some cases she had to spend more time studying.

"If you opened my brain, it would be jam packed with sticky notes,'' Spain said.

Spain enjoys poking fun at herself.

"If you don't learn to laugh at yourself when you get older, you are going to be in trouble,'' Spain said.

The plus side of going to college later in life is that it is easier to understand some subjects because you have lived them.

"There are many life experiences you can attach information to,'' Spain said.

She cited World War II as an example. It was easier for her to study the war because she has vivid childhood memories of what it was like then.

"I remember seeing how scared my parents were,'' Spain said.

Spain said that her husband, King, and other family members and friends made numerous sacrifices to help her get through college. She will never forget the sacrifices they made.

"It takes a village of support for anyone to get through college,'' Spain said.