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Women’s College grad still taking classes at age 98

Sarah Carlton Proctor, 98, arrives at a University of Georgia classroom. Photo: Nancy Evelyn

These are a few of Sarah Carlton Vryan Proctor’s favorite things: travel, Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw, history, the classics, political science, The Athens Banner Herald, The Economist, the Georgia Museum of Art, her family, and a close community of friends. Then there are the pleasantries that make life worthwhile: good manners, gracious living, hot tea and pre-warmed tea cups, long lunches where she catches up on gossip at a table with a central view of the crowd.

She evokes Katharine Hepburn in the film On Golden Pond. Like Hepburn, Proctor strikes a determined, elegant figure and has lived long enough to earn a few innocent vices. Unlike Hepburn, she is no Yankee but was born and raised in the South proper — Savannah, Ga., and the surrounding salt marshes near the Isle of Hope. Her Southern accent is saline-tinged and as precise as her mind.

But stories of her student days at the Colorado Women’s College in the early 1930s make Proctor’s eyes light with a special joy. Here she submitted to serious rules for the young women who lived in an almost-new dormitory (Foote Hall) but enjoyed the relaxed social atmosphere of Denver as it emerged from underneath the restrictions of Prohibition.

Proctor, then known by her maiden name of Vryan, was hardly a bathtub-gin flapper girl, but she found her days in Colorado a fascinating departure from life in Georgia.

Going West

Proctor, soon to be 98, flings a paisley shawl around her shoulders, gathers herself and takes a seat in the living room. She apologizes about the walker, which she dislikes using. Only her gait is slowing — Proctor’s mind is vigorous. There’s ample evidence, given the stacks of reading material. Stephen Hawking’s The Universe in a Nutshell and Stephen King’s On Writing await.

Eighty years ago, Proctor was a sheltered teenager from a proper Southern family, living in an elegant two-story Savannah home on East 40th Street, one built by her grandfather in 1913. At age 18, she traveled alone by train from the East Coast in order to reach Denver and attend college. The Vryan family hoped for two things for their eldest daughter: that the fresh Colorado air would afford protection from the dreaded tuberculosis sweeping the nation, and that college would provide her with a good education and work training.

“Tuberculosis was in the South, and certainly in Savannah; tuberculosis was rampant,” Proctor says. “And I think Mother thought it would be good idea to get me in a different climate and around people in a different background.”

Proctor’s parents did some investigating before choosing a place “where they trained young women for reliable jobs. I studied typing, accounting, business law, English, history.” Proctor attended the Women’s College from 1931–33.

She found the suite accommodations in Foote Hall spacious and new. There were two bedrooms separated by a hallway and bath. Her window offered a beautiful mountain view.

There was no haze whatever, she says — the view was clear, and she would stand and stare at the Rocky Mountains. The Western culture was vastly different yet appealing. The path for good friendships among school pals with playful nicknames like “Cowhide” became clear as well. (Proctor’s own nickname was “Peanuts.”)

She quickly, happily settled. “My first roommate was Muriel Maine, from Wyoming. We became good friends. The next year, I roomed with Lois “Cowhide” Hope Kimzey. She was from Colorado Springs and married J. D. Perryman. … He was a graduate of the School of Mines in Golden, Colo.”

There were only three Southerners in the entire student body, which in 1929 only numbered 295.

“Of course, I had a very Southern accent; they thought I was funny. I believed they were being friendly, it made no difference—it went over like a lead balloon! I didn’t know they were teasing me about my accent. There was one other Southerner, Emily Brown, who was a daughter of people in the armed forces.”

They all became good friends. Yet she marveled at their differences.

“I was young and unsophisticated in many ways — a young lady from the East Coast. You know, they weren’t familiar with tides in Colorado, they knew nothing about tides! Or the ocean! But I went from ground zero to a mile high. The change in altitude made a big difference—if I walked up the steps from the basement to the third floor, I was exhausted. But I acclimated. I survived.”

She has no mementos or photographs from that time, but she has plenty of memories. Despite the grinding Depression, Proctor says, these were carefree and happy student times. During weekends at home with friends, Proctor says a group of them would pile into cars and head out to hear big band music: “at least eight or nine of us, to save on gas.” Gas cost about 17 cents per gallon in the 1930s.

Back on campus, she found comfort in a strict regimen. Behaviors were defined: Ukulele playing and telephone time was strictly monitored by the house mothers. “They practiced in loco parentis … the schools took a lot of responsibility for you; they cared. It was nice to have somebody who cared.”

Only two years after arriving in Denver, Proctor was back at sea level. “I went back to Savannah and worked at J.C. Penney and married.” She met her first husband, a Texan named Henry Clay Pearson Jr., while working in Savannah. They married in 1937.

Still learning

Today, Proctor lives on a shaded street only a stone’s throw from the University of Georgia in Athens. She shares her life philosophy — a personal manifesto — about continuing education. It boils down to this: Keep continuing! Find good professors and latch onto them!

Proctor has never stopped questing or learning.  She earned a graduate degree at the University of Georgia in 1973 and a specialist’s certificate in education in 1975. She visited the graduate school to inquire about registering for graduate classes a couple of years ago. Proctor, replete in hat and patrician summer garb, spurred a flurry of responses: Graduate assistants in jeans, tank tops and Nikes spilled out of cubicles to see the woman with the hungry mind who has been studying for decades and who intends to continue — well, forever.

Proctor lives in the same house she has occupied since 1948 as a young mother. As for modern inventions, she doesn’t care for them, she says, especially computers.

“I don’t have a computer. I don’t have any computer problems,” she says. “I rely upon Uncle Sam’s mail and FedEx.”

Proctor decided she wanted to return to school in 1963, when her children were grown. “I was 50, and most of the students were 20,” she marvels. Taking two courses each quarter, she finished a bachelor’s degree in business education. She began teaching at age 55 at Clarke Central High School in Athens, Ga. Five years later, her husband, Henry Clay Pearson Jr., whom she called “Daddy,” died.

“[Teaching] not only gave me something to do, but something that felt like the right thing to do,” she says. It was something she never wanted to stop but did, retiring in 1982 at age 70.

Hungering to experience more of the world, Proctor began to travel broadly after her first husband’s death. She met a fascinating man named Jack Proctor in the Atlanta airport. Their conversation en route to the Soviet Union led to a six-week courtship, which led to another happy, though brief, marriage. The pair traveled happily until his death four years later in 1994.

Always, Proctor studied. She signs up for one or two courses a semester. Her blue eyes grow serious as she discusses how lifelong learning has expanded, filled her life.

“I’m not interested in any more degrees,” she says. “I’m 98!  I’m just satisfying my curiosity.”

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