May 10, 2024 - News

A Butler degree four decades in the making

A picture of a woman hugging two young children on a blue background

Nancy Thoms with her grandchildren, William and Audrey. Photo: Courtesy of Nancy Thoms

Butler University's commencement ceremony is Friday night, but Nancy Thoms won't be there to collect her master's degree in history.

Why it matters: It doesn't, according to Thoms. She's not going to use the thing. But four decades after she started, she is glad to have finished it.

  • "This is a big issue for everyone else," Thoms said. "Everyone keeps saying, 'You've gotta do it.' I'm 80 years old. I don't need to go walking across the stage with a bunch of 21-year-olds."

The big picture: This isn't the first time Thoms has skipped commencement, or finished a degree after an … extended break in her studies.

  • She entered Butler as a freshman from Seymour in 1961.
  • The next year, she met a young lawyer named Bill Thoms while working in the IU law library in downtown Indianapolis.
  • "He was at the library doing research," Nancy told Axios. "He ended up talking to me instead of doing his work."
  • Nancy left Butler without finishing her degree when they married in 1965.

Yes, but: She finished her undergraduate degree in 1975, after her sons Joe and Chris were in school.

  • "I didn't go to graduation then either," she said. "We were going to the Caribbean on vacation, so I told [the school] I just couldn't fit it into my schedule."
  • After, she started work on her graduate degree but life — kids, family and work — got in the way.

Last year, she started thinking about her unfinished degree.

  • "I only needed 12 hours," she said. "I thought, 'Why don't I do it?'"

So, she did.

  • She took courses on memorials and monuments, Russian history, architecture and Roman film.
  • "We looked at ancient Rome through film," she said. "The first movie we saw was [the 1959 film] 'Ben-Hur.' I saw that in the theater."

What they're saying: "She was a breath of fresh air," said history professor John Cornell, who taught two of Thoms' classes and served as her academic advisor. "She was very friendly with the undergraduates, and she was always in conversation with them before class."

  • "They really enjoyed having her in the class and she set them at ease."

What's next: Nancy said she's already missing the routine of going to class and interacting with the other students.

  • She's considering auditing more classes in the future.
  • "That is what I miss the most, the kids," she said. "They all were all so nice to me."
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