Anna Arnett of Chandler, Ariz., is Wilkes University’s Oldest Graduate At 91 Years Young

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Woman Earns Creative Writing Master’s Degree

If you want to know the secret to longevity, 91-year-old Anna Arnett of Chandler, Ariz., might have the answer. When she completes her degree on June 4 in creative writing from Wilkes University, she becomes the school’s oldest graduate in its 83-year history.  She says that pursuing an advanced degree after her 90th birthday has kept her active and young in mind and spirit.

“Finding Wilkes has added years to my life,” says “Miss Anna,” as her Wilkes classmates call her. “I was really ready for Wilkes and have not regretted a moment of my enrollment. It came fairly late in my life, but definitely has enriched it.”

Arnett will read from her memoir at 4 p.m.(Mountain Time) on Saturday at the Mesa Center for Higher Education, 245 West Second St. in Mesa, followed by a graduation ceremony. The degree is the latest achievement in a life that reads like a novel. The energetic senior has raised a family of seven children, directed and taught in a school for pregnant teens in the Mesa, Ariz., school district and been the wife of an Air Force pilot. She’s moved 29 times, living in 16 states, Australia and Japan.

A member of the World War II generation, Arnett’s memoir, Forever Endeavor, was written as her creative thesis in the Wilkes program. It covers the story of her parents’ early life in Utah as educators and farmers. The memoir includes details of her own life being raised in the Mormon faith and growing up on a farm.

“They were real pioneers,” she says of her parents. “My mother was born in 1886…on a cattle ranch in a two-room log cabin with a dirt floor and a dirt roof. But a nice fireplace.”

Arnett’s faculty mentor in the program was J. Michael Lennon, Wilkes University professor emeritus of English and author of the acclaimed biography Norman Mailer: A Double Life. In speaking of her mentor, Arnett says he, “epitomizes what Ella Wheeler Wilcox said: ‘A pat on the back is only a few vertebrae removed from a kick in the pants, but is miles ahead in results.’ Dr. Lennon is profuse with his praise. He truly inspires me to keep improving.”

Lennon lauds his student’s accomplishments, saying, “Working with Anna has been a distinct and unusual pleasure. She is a superb writer with an eye like a pair of tweezers for the telling detail. Through her mother’s journals, and her own memories, she has put us in close touch with that golden time in American history when Mormon families walked across a continent to build lives in the West. Her maternal grandparents arrived in Idaho’s Escalante Valley over 150 years ago. Anna’s manuscript—a mixture of memory, journal entries and ruminations on the past—brings back those colorful days of yesteryear.”

Earlier Arnett earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English and education from Arizona State University. She earned her Wilkes degree through the creative writing Weekender Program, which follows a low-residency format, allowing participants to attend classes once a month at the University’s Arizona site at the Mesa Center for Higher Education while working independently the rest of the time online with faculty mentors. Arnett says it’s been the perfect fit.

“Wilkes offered me exactly what I was looking for, and in a format to fit my capabilities. How could I not be a fan of the university that has given me a new lease on life? I am thrilled with the way I’ve been treated, or should I say babied, all the way through. I have never had more delightful people to work with. Dr. [J. Michael] Lennon has been absolutely fantastic. I doubt I’ve ever had more fun than I have had since I enrolled in Wilkes.”

Arnett also explains that the deadlines in the program helped her to finish a book she’s wanted to write for decades. It’s given her new insights into her parents’ lives. She says, “It has given me a closeness to them that surprises and delights me. I’ve made field trips into Utah to see where my mother was born and then again where she got her elementary education.” 

The memoir written for her master’s degree thesis is the second in what Arnett envisions as a series of books about her extraordinary life. An earlier volume, Lolly’s Yarns: My Life As I Have Chosen to Live It, focused on her marriage to her late husband, Charles, who died in March 2008, his career as an Air Force pilot that ended in 1968, and raising their large family, which now includes 28 grandchildren and 49 great-grandchildren. 

While many her age might consider earning a master’s degree as one more item to check off the bucket list, Arnett sees it as just one more stop on the exciting journey of her life. She envisions writing more books capturing her life story – but first, there’s her graduation party.  It will be held June 4 at the Latter-Day Saints meetinghouse she attends. She expects more than 200 guests to join her.

“I’m planning the kind of party my grandparents would have held,” Arnett says. “Spencer Aubrey (Wilkes M.A. graduate) has already agreed to teach and call some square dances, and my son Wayne will round up some family musicians to play old time music.… and we’ll have pot luck desserts. My son Wayne says he might make homemade root beer.”

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