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Retired Nurse, 73, to Graduate From College : Education: Adelaide Tatto of Pacoima may be Chapman University's oldest degree recipient.


Until she showed up to collect the tassel for her mortarboard cap, Adelaide Tatto of Pacoima never stepped foot on the main campus at Chapman University, but news of her graduation spread as quickly as a keg party on the small campus in Orange.

At age 73, Tatto may be the oldest undergraduate to earn a degree from the 132-year-old university, but administrators say they can't be sure.

Tatto will receive her degree in health science this weekend, having completed her studies at Chapman's West Los Angeles Academic Center, one of 40 satellite sites spread across eight Western states.

Although she had acquired a cap and gown for the graduation ceremony, she had to make a preliminary trip to the central campus that she had never seen to get the proper tassel for the mortarboard cap.

Larry Lisonbee, Tatto's health care supervision instructor, said she brought "distilled wisdom" to the classroom and overcame fears that she was too old to compete with her younger colleagues.

"One of the assignments was to write a 10- to 12-page paper," Lisonbee said. "She came back with a well-documented, well-researched 10- to 20-page paper."

A retired nurse, Tatto had been working toward a degree from Chapman more than 10 years ago, courtesy of Kaiser Permanente, her employer at that time. But when she retired in 1985, Kaiser stopped paying her academic bills and Tatto left school with a semester to go.

Tatto had always preached the value of higher education to her two children. After all, she earned a nursing degree from the Milwaukee School of Nursing half a century ago.

So as she watched her son Paul, 42, work toward a degree in management from University of Redlands this spring, Tatto decided to return to school.

Paul says his mother's ability to make the adjustment back to academia reflects an attitude that she's held throughout her life toward change and progress.

"She's never been old-fashioned, not radically modern, but never afraid of what tomorrow would bring," Paul said.

Tatto sees it as keeping in step with her kids, and staying lively throughout her life, no matter what others might say.

Some friends laughed at the idea of her returning to school, questioning what she would do with a degree, she said.

" 'What are you gonna do? Get a job?' " her friends joked. "I just wanted to enlarge the brain cells, that's what life is all about," she said.

Still, a bachelor's degree has practical benefits for Tatto, who for almost two years has done volunteer work as an educator and speaker for AIDS Project L. A. She hopes to use her new classroom knowledge to expand her 40-minute presentations on AIDS prevention.

"Everyone who gets HIV will die," Tatto said. "It may be 10 years or 15 years, but there is no cure. At this point, education is the only vaccine that we know of.

"I'll go anywhere," Tatto said of the presentations. "Wherever they want me. I go to middle schools and high schools and sororities and Rotary clubs. It's a message that needs to be gotten out."

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