Author Doreen Wendt-Weir – you may also know her as Dear Doreen on the Seven Network’s The Morning Show – writes for Grey Matters about how getting her degree at age 71 was the result of a lifelong pursuit of knowledge and no regrets.
One day at 65 I found myself standing in my gallery on Tamborine Mountain, alone with just my thoughts and half-finished beads in my hands. My paintings hung on the walls around me, while enamels and golden bowls and necklaces of my hand-crafted beads adorned the rest of the room.
In that moment I found myself thinking: “If I die and go to heaven and meet St Peter at the Pearly Gates, he could well ask me what I’ve done while on Earth. What will I say? Made beads?”
Of course, I’d done much more than that. Born in 1928 to the wife of a dairy farmer on the Logan River in Queensland, I’d lived through The Great Depression of the 1930s, I grew up walking five kilometres barefoot to school and learnt to milk my first cow, Adelaide, at the tender age of four.
As a timid little country girl, as daunting as it was when we moved to the city, I attended the local suburban school and even won a scholarship at 14 to finish my secondary education, with aspirations of going to university and becoming a journalist.
But the war interrupted my plans and after completing what is now grade 10, like many I was taken out of school to become part of the war effort. This was 1943, when Singapore had fallen, the Brisbane Line had been drawn, the Japanese army was within 30 miles of Port Moresby, Brisbane was a garrison city with 150,000 American troops, and things were grim indeed. I was sent to work as a mail clerk for the US Army.
After the war, resuming school was not an option so I did a four-year nursing course, followed by midwifery. I lived and worked in England, managed my own District Nursing Service in Brisbane, and married and had children.
But still, I found myself thinking: I could have done a lot more.
Struck by inspiration, I phoned Griffith University and asked what were my chances of gaining entry? Several interviews later saw me successful, and in the year 2000, aged 71, I commenced my Bachelor of Arts degree (BA), majoring in Creative Writing and Indigenous Studies.
I was terrified. Terrified of driving 40km down a winding mountain road; terrified of finding a place to park; terrified of university life. But inch by hard inch, I overcame all obstacles. I learnt how to write academic assignments, how to use computers and how to navigate the online university forums.
It wasn’t easy. But I worked hard and applied myself diligently. I took every extra free course that was on offer to help me, and as months passed, my marks improved from Credit to Distinction and even higher, to High Distinctions.
Even though the other students were less than a third of my age, they didn’t treat me any differently. We had lunch together and shared jokes, and still to this day I get Facebook friend requests from them saying “hello” and “Oh, I remember you!”.
I became a bit of a celebrity too – I was famous for saying what I thought. When they’d complain to a lecturer about the homework and assignments being too much, one particular lecturer would say, “We’ll just ask Doreen”. And I would say: “Well if every Tom, Dick and Harry can come and get their BA then I don’t want to do it. I only want to do it if it’s a challenge”.
At the completion of my three-year degree, at 74, I was made a member of The Worldwide Society of Academic Honour because I had achieved a grade point average of six or more … out of seven!
While at university I was also approached by the councillor for the Logan Village district; an anecdotal and oral history was needed for the area, and they thought I was the one who could do it. So I wrote Barefoot in Logan Village, a book about my parents, my grandparents and my great-grandparents, as well as myself. I also tracked down and interviewed every aged person who had lived in the district, and told their stories. It’s now in its second edition, and much loved.
I was also urged to continue my studies and join the post-graduate Honours program – an extra year of study, involving a research project. My thesis was entitled: The German Emigration to the Logan River District in the 1880s, particularly from the Point of View of the Women. I wrote the piece in the voice of my grandmother who had been part of a diaspora in 1884, aged just 12.
She lived for 98 years, outliving my mother, and was close to me. At her knee, as a child, I would listen to her stories of her life – imagining them in reality – so I knew them well. I used the oral portion of this popular thesis as the first third of Knee Deep in Logan Village, a trilogy that I wrote in the voices of my grandmother, my father, and myself, to honour 150 years of settlement of Logan Village, of which my great-grandparents were a part.
While in my Honours year, I began helping other students too and even worked as a tutor for classes. This was when it was suggested – by my class lecturers – that the subject of sex and the ageing had not been researched all that well, and that I was the one to do it after finishing my course.
“Why me?” I asked in indignation.
“Come off it, Doreen,” was the reply. “We know you are in your 70s. We know you are in a loving relationship. And we know you can write.” So I began.
As I spoke to many different men and women in their 70s on the topic, the usual problems were encountered. Women’s problems…ah yes, the well known ones. And men’s problems, also known to most, and dreaded. But I found that the most talked about topic was what to do with your teeth! It was mostly the females that worried about this awful dilemma.
My book, Sex in Your Seventies, was published in 2006. It consists of 33 chapters, each one a separate vignette about one of the many interesting characters that I interviewed. Some stories make you smile, others might have the opposite effect, but all of them make you think. There is a lesson in each chapter of what I term a ‘good read’.
Following on from that, guest speaking has also opened up a whole new world for me, as have other appearances. It is exciting to mount the podium in readiness for my speech to perhaps hundreds – some of whom, usually women, might be sitting with arms crossed defiantly, lips pursed tight and obviously thinking, ‘What’s this old git going to tell us?’.
So I build my case, starting soft but finishing with what I call the ‘wow factor’. It is very satisfying to see arms unfolded, lips relaxed and laughing as perhaps they give me a standing ovation.
My children certainly weren’t all too impressed when I first released Sex in Your Seventies. But like I always say, it isn’t a how-to guide! And while it took them a long while to get there, now they’re quite proud of me.
This all led on to interviews on radio and in magazines, and television appearances, culminating in my present stint as the resident senior sexpert offering advice for all kinds of relationship and life questions on Dear Doreen, a segment on The Morning Show on Channel 7.
None of this would have occurred had not that apprehensive person – the one that I used to be – had the courage to go to university in the first place. Going to uni at 71 certainly changed my life. But more importantly, it changed me. It gave me the self-confidence that I sorely needed.
I never could have imagined this is how I’d spend my 70s and my 80s – not even on that fateful day when I found myself, beads in hand, pondering my response at the pearly gates which set it all in motion. Now I’m 90 and one thing I know more than ever is that it doesn’t matter how old you are, there’s always something new to learn in this journey we call life.
Doreen is the author of Sex in Your Seventies, Barefoot in Logan Village, and Knee Deep in Logan Village.