Beatrice Lillico Sheppard of New Bern will graduate from East Carolina University this weekend with honors and a unique distinction. She is the "senior" member of the Senior Class, a fact made even more remarkable in that she is 84 years old, a great-grandmother, a veteran of World War II, a world traveler and one of the oldest students ever to be fully immersed in a degree program at ECU.
"It's something that I have wanted to do for a long time, but never got the chance," said Sheppard, who is graduating cum laude with a B.A. Degree in English in a program that focuses on the classics of world literature.
The Department of English will hold a recognition ceremony for Sheppard and other senior English majors on Friday at 9 a.m. in Hendrix Theatre at Mendenhall Student Center. Sheppard will speak at the ceremony. She does not plan to attend the all-university commencement on Saturday (Dec. 14) because, she said, "there are too many people there."
About 2,300-degree candidates will graduate at Saturday's commencement that starts at 10 a.m. in Minges Coliseum.
Sheppard began her college work taking liberal arts courses at Craven Community College in New Bern. She transferred her studies to ECU in 1997 when she was 79.
John Stevens, a professor of classic literature, said that Sheppard discovered that she wanted to learn about things that she didn't already know.
"She wound up coming to my house to be tutored in Latin and taking our Great Books curriculum," said Stevens. She studied the works of Erasmus, Vergil and Shakespeare, among others.
"She loved it and found in our program the life of the mind she never knew existed," he said.
Sheppard's pursuit of a degree was far from easy. Last spring, she fell on the way to a lecture hall and broke her knee. She finished her spring studies from a sick bed.
In addition to class work, she has written numerous poems. She also likes to make quilts.
Over the years, she has traveled extensively. She has been to every state in the United States and to Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania and Russia and across Europe.
"My father always said 'the world is your oyster, get out and see it,'" she said.
In World War II, she was a secretary in the U.S. Marine Corps and stationed in Washington, D.C. where she worked with correspondents covering the war. She married a U.S. Marine from Duplin County. After the war, she held federal jobs and worked as a court reporter and with the Register of Deeds Office in Duplin County. When she retired in 1979, she was a member of the legal office staff at Cherry Point Marine Court Air Station in Havelock.
With all of her interests and her busy life in retirement, some of her friends have been skeptical about her desire for a college degree.
"They ask me 'why do you want to do that? '" she said. "To them it's trouble, to me it is the most wonderful feeling."
"I want to get that BA degree in a frame and just hang it on the wall. It would mean so much to me," she said. She said her future goals include tutoring fourth and fifth grades in the public schools.