89-Year-Old Student Fulfilling a Dream
Will Graduate from Extension School
By Nicole Jacovino
Special to the Gazette
Mary Fasano remembers walking into her home one day when she was 14 and finding a teacher from her high school arguing with her family. "She is too smart to give up school," the teacher told them. But at the time, it was considered customary for girls to go to work and then marry instead of pursuing academics, and young Mary had to yield to family tradition.
But she made a promise to herself that one day she would go back to school.
Now, Fasano will be celebrating her graduation from the Extension School in June, entering the record books as the oldest person to earn a degree in the history of Harvard University. Mary Fasano turned 89 on Tuesday.
"Mary is an inspiration," said Extension School Dean Michael Shinagel. "She embodies through her actions the phrase 'lifelong learning.' She is enrolled in both the Harvard Extension School to complete her bachelor's degree and the Harvard Institute for Learning in Retirement to continue her studies."
Fasano worked as forelady at a sewing factory in Warren, R.I., where she met her husband, Arcangelo. After their first child was born, the couple moved to Braintree, Mass. Four more children were born after several years and the family started Fasano's Diner, which they ran for 12 years. "It was such a successful business that I put all my kids through college from the diner," Fasano said.
After a lifetime of working, the Fasanos sold the diner, and the family's catering business was taken over by her children. Fasano retired, and decided to go back to school. "I valued my education more than making money," she recalled. She started by enrolling in Braintree High School in 1977, earning her high school diploma in 1979, at the age of 71.
She enrolled in the Harvard Extension School in 1979 after receiving encouragement from a friend who worked for the College.
In 1993, after 14 years of studying art, Shakespeare, Italian, and many other subjects, Fasano received an associate's degree from the Extension School and was awarded the Santo Joseph Aurelio Prize, an award "that recognizes academic achievement and character for undergraduate degree recipients over 50 years of age."
Fasano has worked toward her dream of a college degree for 18 years. After receiving her associate's degree, she went on to study for a bachelor's degree in liberal arts.
"The fact that she stayed true to her academic goal for 18 years is noteworthy, and the fact that she was 71 when she started [college studies] and is 89 now is remarkable," said Suzanne Spreadbury, director of undergraduate degree programs at the Extension School, and also Fasano's adviser.
Fasano will participate in Commencement this June, and formally receive her bachelor's degree in November after completing one last course over the summer. Three generations of her family have planned a formal gathering to celebrate. Besides her 5 children, she has 20 grandchildren, and 18 great-grandchildren.
But the biggest thing she has to celebrate is the completion of a dream, and the fulfillment of a promise she made to herself 75 years ago.
"I'm happy now," she said. "It's for my own satisfaction."
Copyright 1998 President and Fellows of Harvard College