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College life at 80 years old differs from the norm

While most retirees spend their days relaxing, John Stein and wife Vera are either attending class at USF or exercising in the Campus Recreation Center.

For the past 15 years, they have been students at USF. But they aren’t your traditional college couple.

John, 82, and Vera, 87, are college students under the senior’s tuition waiver program. They’ve been students at USF since 1988.

Tuition-free classes have been open to senior citizens at Florida’s 11 state universities since the mid-1990s when the tuition-waiver program was created. At USF, they are eligible for nine credit hours per semester, at no cost, in graduate or undergraduate classes on a space-available basis. No college credit is given under the tuition-waiver program.

For John, already a college graduate, his reason for studying is fairly simple.

“The way to get kicked all over in life is to not have an education,” he said.

Vera said she and her husband are still very sociable, and taking classes is a different way to stay informed.

“When people get older, they retire and go into isolation,” she said. “It’s a pleasure to do what we do.”

John was born in 1922 in the Bronx, NY. A former World War II veteran, he graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with an engineering degree in 1950. He went on to receive a master’s degree from Clark University in business administration.

“Then I had four jobs in five years,” he said. “I wanted to be rich. I was after the buck.”

This drive for a larger bank account eventually led him to start his own business. He said his packaging company paid for all the food he could eat.

“I ate the best food, which is the worst food (for your health),” he said.

His lifestyle of working and studying didn’t allow him anytime to exercise. Soon, he needed quintuple bypass surgery to live. This initiated his lust for exercising.

His wife Vera was born in 1918 in Neshoba, Miss. She married at the age of 16. She said she graduated high school after agreeing with the school supervisor to keep her marriage a secret. She became a homemaker after graduating high school.

When her first husband retired, she thought that they would finally spend time together as a family. Instead, her husband took a part-time job during his retirement and fell off a ladder at work breaking his neck. Vera spent her husband’s last few years caring for him until his death ended the 50-year-long marriage.

Two years later, Vera met John at a meeting of the Sweetwater Oaks Homeowners Association, where John is president. The next day he invited her for coffee and there they got to know each other.

“He wanted to see what made me tick,” she said. “He said ‘If you and I can dance together, then I want to be with you.’ We danced in his kitchen.”

Together, Vera, who began exercising when she was 40, and John began swimming. Ever since USF’s recreation center opened in 1997, the Steins have been regular visitors. She said she urged John to use the gym’s exercise equipment.

“He never worked out on machines before,” she said.

They exercise at the gym from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

“I only (attend class) to use the gym and swimming pool,” John jokingly said. “My wife and I are the oldest people there.”

Aside from school, the Steins like to travel. Their destinations have included Honolulu, Texas, Germany and France. They each have three kids, all college graduates. Vera said she has nine grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. John said he has “five grandkids, but no great-grandkids … that I know of.”

He also said that there are some major differences between the time he attended universities of yesteryear and today.

“Back when I was a student (from 1947-1950), we had lecture classes (at Clark University) which had about 120 students, whereas MIT was an itsy-bitsy school and the No. 1 ranked engineering school in the world. In those lecture classes (at Clark University), you may not ask questions. There was a recitation class three times a week where you may ask questions. (Now), I make rhetorical questions. I don’t ask questions, I make statements.”

He said that aside from the class setup, that there were no food courts, much less ones that included Pizza Hut or Chick-Fil-a or any snack machines on campus for that matter.

John and Vera said the treatment they receive from USF faculty and students is better than they expected.

“If I could tell young people one thing, it would be to have a balance,” Vera said, alluding to her late husband’s working lifestyle, John’s bypass surgeries and her own battle with cancer. Vera had ovarian cancer, but she said her faith in God and a healthy lifestyle helped her beat the cancer.

“I’m free and clear of it without chemotherapy,” she said. “I went the health route. I exercised and ate organic foods.”

Vera feels they’ve been given a second chance in life. The Steins also intend to take more classes. Vera said she wants to attend USF for as long as she can.

“My bags are packed,” she said. “But I’ll keep coming here until God says it’s time to go.”

John, on the other hand, is more optimistic.

“I want to continue going to school for (another) 10 years.”