Class of 2014: 97-Year-Old Ruth Cameron Earns Music Degree

About 340 undergraduates are expected to walk across the stage and receive their Nebraska Wesleyan University diplomas on Saturday, May 17.

For most of those graduates, it was a four-year journey. For one member of the Class of 2014, it took a bit longer — 81 years longer.

In August 1933 Ruth (Bryant) Cameron moved from her home in Syracuse, Neb., to Nebraska Wesleyan with every intention of pursuing a traditional college experience. For three of those years, her experience was very typical: she majored in violin and took private violin lessons that were held in her professors’ homes. She was also active in many student organizations.

Then life took a turn.

“When her mother became ill, the additional cost of her violin lessons was a significant factor in her withdrawal from school,” said Elizabeth Otto, Cameron’s daughter. “She was also hesitant about the senior recital, the performance of which was required for graduation.”

Cameron left NWU just one semester short of graduation.

Life eventually took Cameron and her husband, Jim, from one coast to another; first to Massachusetts then to California where she found work at the University of California–Riverside. Fine arts continued to play an important role in her life.

“She played violin in the Riverside Symphony,” said Otto. “She enjoyed many opportunities to paint stage scenery, design needlepoint, and design and sew seasonal hanging banners for Riverside’s First Methodist Church.”

Otto remembers music playing an essential role in their family’s life.

“Mother played the piano almost daily,” she recalled. “Some of the melodies came from tunes she wrote. I often saw her stop in mid-task to play the piano.”

Her life was filled with many blessings, said Otto. But one thing continued to weigh on Cameron’s mind.

“In the way that an unresolved situation sits at the back of one’s mind, the departure from the university without gaining the degree haunted her,” said Otto. “She hesitated to contact the university, not knowing what to ask or what might be possible. She spoke of the loss more frequently during the last 10 years.”

That led Cameron’s son-in-law, Dale, on an adventure. He contacted the university in August. His request went before the university’s Executive Committee, which reviews curriculum exceptions and decisions and approves life-long learning portfolios.

“We pulled her records which were on micro film and went through them,” said University Registrar Nancy Schilz.

The records were shared with faculty in the music department who took an in-depth look at Cameron’s records and experiences.

“We looked at the courses that Ruth had taken. They were pretty comparable to what a Bachelor of Arts degree would be today,” said Sam Zitek, associate professor of music. “She was short on some things, but we have the option of accounting life experiences.”

“In our view she had plenty of life experience in music that took care of whatever coursework shortcomings she had,” Zitek continued. “The music faculty thought it would be wonderful to award her with the diploma after all these years.”

Following approval from the music department, the request went back to the Executive Committee for final approval, and in December Cameron’s family was notified that she was an official NWU graduate.

Unbeknownst to 97-year-old Cameron — who now lives in a retirement center in Seattle, Wash. — her family planned a special surprise graduation party where they presented her with her diploma.

“She first read the letter and was very surprised and deeply pleased,” said Otto. “My brother then handed her the diploma—she gasped and was moved to tears. It was at that moment that she realized that full recognition of her work at NWU and her life contributions were recognized and affirmed. We were all very moved.” 

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Ruth Cameron is the senior-most senior in the Class of 2014, finishing her music degree this year.
Ruth Cameron's family surprised her with her diploma earlier this year.