Betty Reilly Bachelor’s Degree At 89: Woman Gets Degree, Would Love To Go Further

December 16, 2015 | By Garrett Montgomery More

Betty Reilly’s bachelor’s degree in English from Florida Atlantic University will indeed make it possible for her to get the job of her dream at the age of 89. Reilly explained that it took her almost 11 years to obtain her degree and if she could, she would pursue her education.

Betty Reilly Bachelor's degree

Betty Reilly‘s bachelor’s degree in English from Florida Atlantic University has made an old dream come true – become a librarian, and she has decided to teach at Broward College instead.

This week, Reilly, 89, made history by becoming the third oldest person to graduate from Florida Atlantic University. Mark A. Rickets, who was 91 when he received a bachelor’s degree in computer science in 1992, is the oldest FAU graduate, he is followed by Menahem Hager, who earned a master’s degree in 2011 at the age of 90.

It took Reilly more than 11 years to accomplish her goal of graduating from college. Reilly began her journey back to school in 2005 when she discovered that a position had opened at the West Regional Library in Plantation where she was already an employee.

Other staff members encouraged her to apply for the opening, but she learned that a high school diploma was required and understood she was not qualified for the post. Betty Reilly, a great-grandmother originally from Youngstown, Ohio, was a brilliant student, who survived the Depression.

As a teenager, she even had a scholarship to attend the New School, a liberal arts college in New York, but during her senior year in high school, she contracted Hepatitis A after eating raw clams at Times Square. The illness paralyzed her for two months and caused her to quit school after she lost her scholarship.

Then life happened – she married Thomas Reilly and moved to Florida in 1965 where they raised a family until his death in 1989. In 2005, she tried to get her GED, but failed because of math. She explained:

“I aced English and reading and got one wrong in science and social studies, but I forgot my math,” she said.

She tried again in 2007 at the age of 80 and got it, and was advised by a teacher to apply for college, and she did just that after obtaining a federal Pell Grant, which was enough to pay for her tuition and school supplies. At 80, Betty Reilly, who no longer drives, decided for the next eight years she would take the bus to Broward College and eventually to Florida Atlantic University. She started taking two to three classes each semester at Broward College and earned her associate’s degree in 2011 at age 85. However, she was not done yet. Reilly explained:

“Everyone was saying, ‘You can relax. You have your degree. But I said that’s halfway. I wanted to finish my college degree.”

She furthered her education and obtained a Bachelor’s degree in English from Florida Atlantic University. After receiving her diploma, she said:

“I’m gung ho on education, and I believe it’s never too late. If I can do it, anybody can.”

Reilly’s five children including her daughter, Beth Reilly, 62, and other family members cheered her on from the audience. Beth Reilly, who has been inspired by her mother to go back to school in the future, stated:

“It’s about time. It’s been a long trek.”

Reilly told reporters that most of her younger classmates were kind to her. She confessed:

“They’ve been wonderful. They’re always giving me hugs. They’re my greatest boosters. They don’t patronize me because I’m an older student.”

Reilly has mixed emotions about graduating because she is unable to obtain her master’s degree due to her financial situation. She said:

“I am so happy because of this milestone. But I’m also a little sad, too. I’d really like to go on and continue my education.”

Betty Reilly’s Bachelor’s degree in English will make it possible for her to be a tutor at Broward College. She revealed:

“The few remaining years I have are mine to enjoy doing what I love to do.”

Below is an interview with Ms. Emily Chapman, another 89-year-old, who got her degree in 2011.


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