BOZEMAN, Mont. — A.J. Hancock worked 50 hours a week and still found time to volunteer another 20 hours a week.
That’s one of the details about 88-year-old Hancock’s life that Montana State University junior Brian Spencer learned during an interview for his “Tuesdays with Morrie” project.
Hancock’s dedication to his community blew Spencer away.
“I will never complain about not having enough time to volunteer after listening to his story,” Spencer said.
Started in 2010 by adjunct English professor Jill Davis, “Tuesdays with Morrie” is a college writing project that pairs students with seniors. For 10 weeks of Davis’ College Writing II class this fall, 10 students met with 10 seniors from Bozeman Lodge, an assisted-living home.
Students visit seniors once a week and interview them about their life. At the end of the semester, the students write a paper and present it to their senior partner.
In the process, the students said in addition to becoming better writers, they learned valuable life lessons.
“Even though we were raised so differently, and we have all these different experiences, we were able to connect,” said junior Heather Demorest, who interviewed a senior battling Parkinson’s disease.
Hancock grew up during the Depression, he told Spencer during an interview.
“I never asked for anything. I bought my own clothes, a car and saved to go to college. I was always a saver,” Hancock said.
He saved for college by working at J.C. Penney, a dry cleaning store and running a paper route. He participated in high school football, basketball and track.
He got an athlete of the year award, was salutatorian at his high school and got a scholarship to the University of Wisconsin.
Yet after his freshman year, Hancock had to leave college. He was called to serve in World War II and assigned to train soldiers to operate radar technology in B-29 bomber planes.
Hancock joined with enthusiasm.
“I have realized that A.J. rarely turned down an opportunity to learn and was infinitely curious about everything, an attribute I admire because it allowed him to appreciate a wide variety of experiences throughout his life,” Spencer wrote in his paper.
When he returned from the war, Hancock got a degree in business. He served again in the Korean War, worked in the insurance industry, raised a family with his wife, Betty, and volunteered with several community organizations. Despite his busy schedule, he always made time to help other people.
“Volunteering is an important part of our life and our culture,” Hancock said. “There’s a need for it . I guess that’s as simple as it can be. We’re here to give.”
Now, Hancock is busy caring for his wife, who has been diagnosed with dementia, and he keeps in close contact with his children. He talks on the phone to his son every night.
“He’s really in touch with his family, which is really incredible because you don’t see that in our society as much,” Spencer said. “To always make time for the bigger things in life, like family, is kind of what I learned from him.”
Both MSU junior Morgan Egbert and her senior partner, 87-year-old Bernice DeHaas, are women in science.
DeHaas went to college to be a chemist — an atypical thing for a woman to do at the time.
“Bernice learned how to cook and sew, but her interests were in science,” Egbert wrote in her paper. “She told me she would much rather have taken animal husbandry or shop classes in school, if she had been allowed.”
Egbert knows how hard it is to get a science degree. She is studying cell biology and neuroscience.
“Something I took away from (DeHaas) is that she went into a field that no women were in, and she did it and she loved it,” Egbert said. “I want to do that — just go into a field that I’m passionate about and not worry about fears and expectations.”
DeHaas had earned a full scholarship to college, completed a four-year chemistry degree in three years and went on to get a master’s degree in her field in one year instead of two.
“When I started working, very often I was the only woman there and by and large they were very accepting,” DeHaas said.
But not always. At one job, she was hired with low pay but promised a raise in six months. She never received it. At another job, when she told her boss she was leaving, they told her she couldn’t come back. It was at the end of World War II and they would be hiring men from now on.
DeHaas, a quiet woman who always has a crossword on her desk and who is computer savvy, had a successful career and raised a family with her husband, John. She also traveled the world to places like Mexico City “before it was so polluted and crowded,” China where she dined on chicken feet soup and across Europe.
“Wherever she went, Bernice treated life as an adventure and simply enjoyed the ride,” Egbert wrote. “She summed up her attitude saying, ‘I’ve always been pretty easygoing and adaptable, reasonably content with whatever is going on — it’s just part of the journey.”’
Carol Meredith, 83, has one leg that’s longer than the other, she told sophomore Jake Bourdow.
It’s been that way since she was young.
“My left leg didn’t work like my right one did,” she told Bourdow. “It was caused by infantile paralysis, a frontrunner to polio.”
Meredith had surgeries as a child to correct the problem.
“At age 5, she would take train rides alone to get to the doctor,” Bourdow said.
Meredith’s family moved frequently, and unlike most kids, she welcomed it.
“Because my family moved so many times, I felt I was able to reinvent myself each time,” she told Bourdow. “If I would have stayed in (the same town), the people would always remember me as the little crippled girl.”
Meredith became a teacher and she and her husband, Walt, worked at a school on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation. There, she helped introduce computers into the curriculum. When the couple retired, they moved to Arizona to take care of her parents.
The thing that really struck Bourdow about Meredith was the fact that she had never had a bucket list.
“So many people talk about all the things they want to do, and she’s happy with the life she’s had,” Bourdow said.
Meredith said she’s done everything she’s wanted to do and the things she hasn’t accomplished have become unimportant.
“I probably would like to have one more cruise, but there really is nothing on my bucket list,” she said. “There isn’t anything that I want. Life is good.”
This is the fourth year of the “Tuesdays with Morrie” project.
The project works because the students and seniors don’t know each other, because the relationships the pairs develop are real and because the essays the students write will be treasured by the seniors and their families.
Sometimes, Davis said, it’s easier for the seniors to talk to the students than their grandchildren. And often, grandchildren don’t listen as intently as the students, who will be graded on their work.
Last year, two seniors died after the students got to know them. Relatives of the seniors were grateful to have a collection of their loved one’s stories and took the students into their family. Davis tries to match the students and seniors by personality.
“If I can get my students to write for real audiences, the writing capacity is improved a thousand fold,” Davis said. “When they’re writing papers that don’t have any meaning to them — that they’re going to throw in a bonfire or in the garbage — they don’t put as much effort into it . When the purpose is meaningful, they’ll go the extra mile to really make it a beautiful essay.”
Not only that, but the student and senior often become lifelong friends.
“What they don’t think going into it is how much they’re going to benefit from doing it, and how much they’re going to learn about themselves, and how much they’re going to learn about different generations,” Davis said.
Information from: Bozeman Daily Chronicle, http://www.bozemandailychronicle.com