Six decades later, ‘Grandma Jo’ set to graduate

Helen Joan (Miller) Hunter was eight months pregnant – and three credits short of her degree – when she watched her husband graduate from Carolina in 1947.

Sixty-six years later, more than a dozen family members will be on hand Sunday at Kenan Stadium to watch the 87-year-old great-grandmother earn her Bachelor of Arts diploma.

“It was a long time coming,’’ said Hunter, an avid bridge player and golfer who lives in Phoenix, Arizona. “But I’m happy to do it … and I think my parents would be proud.”

Her four children and six grandchildren certainly are.

Grandson Ryan Helton, 30, says he grew up listening to Grandma Jo reminisce about her time at UNC – and lament the fact that she was just one class short of her college degree.

Born in Pennsylvania in 1925, Hunter graduated from Central High in Charlotte. After two years at the Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina in Greensboro, she transferred to Chapel Hill (which didn’t enroll most women until their junior years back then). She kept up her language studies while joining Alpha Delta Pi sorority, playing catcher on an intramural softball team, and living in Spencer Hall.

Even after getting married in the fall of her senior year, commuting from Durham and learning she was pregnant, she planned to graduate with her husband . . . until appendicitis forced her to undergo surgery just six weeks before the end of the school year.

Promising her parents and herself that she’d take a final elective course by correspondence, she withdrew. But after settling into family life, having three more children, and taking on many other responsibilities including Girl Scout leader, Sunday school teacher, and panhellenic chapter president of her sorority; those three last credits remained elusive.

Until her grandkids got involved.

“All growing up – and I’ve actually got this on video – she’d tell the story of being pregnant and getting appendicitis, and how close she was to getting her degree,’’ Helton said. “And she always said, ‘Oh, I should go back and get those last three credits.’

“… I had heard that my whole life, so finally this past year, we said, ‘All right, enough of her talking about it; let’s finally make this happen.’ I think we kind of pushed her to do it.”

In November 2011, her granddaughter-in-law, Bethany, contacted UNC graduation advisor Richard Cramer, who was surprised by the e-mail. Having someone want to complete a degree after a couple of decades isn’t too unusual, said Cramer, who also teaches in the Department of Sociology. “But 60-plus years out? That is,’’ he said.

The family, at first, wanted to know whether Grandma Jo might qualify for some sort of honorary degree. Cramer dug into Hunter’s old academic record and researched UNC’s general education requirements from the 1940s, then informed the family she need only to pass one elective class to earn a Bachelor of Arts in Romance Languages – Spanish.

So the grandkids scoured Arizona State University’s online courses.  One immediately stood out: The History of Elvis.

“Growing up, my brother and I would spend the night at her house on Saturday night, and drive with her on Sunday morning to church,’’ Helton said. “Well, on the way she always played her Elvis Presley – she loves her Elvis.

“We knew she just needed an elective, so we thought, ‘What better class?’ It was a no-brainer to have her do that one.”

It wasn’t necessarily easy, though. The summer music course, approved by UNC, included four exams, and multiple lectures, quizzes, readings and written assignments. And then there was the online component. Hunter didn’t even own a computer, much less know the definition of “web site.” So the family helped out in shifts.

“We all came over with our laptops, and we had to order our internet for the month that class was going, and we just took turns,’’ Helton said. “We got her logged in, and then she did all the audio lectures, the video lectures, she took all of the notes herself. She did all of the work, and took the exams all by herself.”

In August, she earned an A-minus – and finally qualified for her degree – in between her usual trips to the library and Tuesday rounds of golf.

“I like to keep busy,’’ explained a laughing Hunter, who plays piano and accordion, too.

In that same active vein, Hunter, who will arrive in Chapel Hill this weekend, hopes to visit her old sorority house and former residence hall before Sunday’s graduation ceremony. She said she’s not quite sure how she will feel when she finally dons a cap and gown, more than six decades after she first expected to graduate.

But she’s happy to know how many of her family members will be watching — and grinning at the fact that Grandma Jo will have a new college memory.

“She’s our cornerstone, the matriarch,’’ Helton said. “I just think this speaks to my grandmother’s spirit more than anything. Her going back to school is just the microcosm of who she is as a person, and she has inspired all of us.”

Published May 7, 2013.