Education at Santa Monica College Serves as Fountain of Youth For Well-Traveled Nonagenarian
On a Monday afternoon, students at Santa Monica College exit classrooms and spill into the hallway. They sling their backpacks over one shoulder and talk with friends or rush ahead to their next class. In classroom 216, Trudy Weiner hangs back as she packs up her books and discusses her journalism assignment with her professor. Weiner opts to carry her books on a roller device instead of carrying a book bag.
She drives herself to school, has a cell phone, owns a laptop and corresponds by email. She is just like any another SMC student, except she is about 70 years older than the girl seated next to her. Trudy Weiner is 93.
Weiner easily blends into the classroom with the other students. Declining help getting to the parking lot, she declares, "I am in shape because I do everything myself. I even wash my own floors."
Weiner lives in a retirement complex in Santa Monica. A woman in the lobby is in a wheelchair and attached to an oxygen tank. In contrast, Weiner answers the door energetically in a red Ohio State Sweatshirt. Her tidy, one-bedroom apartment is filled with books and framed pictures of her favorite art. There are copies of Renoir, Picasso, and Rembrandt. In her bedroom are pictures of her family. Weiner is a proud mother of four, a grandmother of eight and has six and a half great-grandchildren (she recently received a call that her granddaughter is pregnant).
Weiner's lifelong affair with education began early. She has always worked, and even as a single mother she prioritized her time to take classes. The amount of courses she has taken over the past seven decades is dizzying. She has studied everything from woodwork to psychology and life drawing. Weiner originally wanted to be an artist but life had different plans for her.
Her remarkable story begins in Pennsylvania. She was born Gertrude Fogelson on October 31,1916. She was the middle child of five. The family moved to Lincoln, Nebraska and by age nine Weiner was sent to an orphanage in Cleveland, Ohio. Weiner never knew her father. "My mother was a saint but she didn't know how to take care of her five children. She gave us no instructions. I was largely ignored," she said.
Weiner got in trouble for stealing and the local authorities removed her and her younger brother from their mother's care. She lived in the orphanage for seven-and-a-half years and later her baby sister joined them. Weiner was sent to a Jewish Orphanage Home called Bellefaire Orphanage.
She has mostly good memories of her time at Bellefaire and was a source of comfort for her peers. She recalls giving advice to a crying girl. "I asked her what was wrong and the girl replied that her cottage mother had thrown away a collection of personal belongings down a garbage chute. I said to her that God treats everyone equally and what you're suffering now you don't deserve, and you'll get that back in another way." Weiner adds, "I don't know why I believed that, but I did. I believed one day I would be rewarded for not talking or fighting back."
Weiner left the orphanage at 17 when her two older sisters moved to Cleveland. She was eager to reunite with them. "This was the first big mistake I made," Weiner said emphatically. What ensued was years of an acrimonious relationship with her oldest sister, Jean. Her second biggest mistake was marrying her husband Leon Weiner, whom she says she married to get away from her sister. They divorced in 1958, when she was 42, but by then she had four children. Her youngest was two years old. Weiner is very candid that initially she did not want to have her fourth baby due to her crumbling marriage, but she decided to go ahead with the pregnancy because "someone up there wanted me to." She says in reference to her ex-husband, "I like to say you don't go to college to get brains. You learn a lot of subjects, but it doesn't give you common sense."
After her divorce, Weiner pursued a college degree. She enrolled at Cleveland State University and graduated in 1974 with a degree in communications. She was in her late 50s, had a good job, a nice apartment, and her children were building their own families and careers.
Then she had another fight with her sister and concluded that she needed to leave town. At 60, she moved to Los Angeles, but she didn't stop there. At 72, Weiner applied to the Peace Corps and was placed in Jamaica, where she worked with orphaned girls. Weiner taught the young women everything from sewing to how to register for a library card. She started a reading group, which usually featured a romance novel, the preferred choice of the girls. She says that when she returned to California, after a two-year rotation, she had a sense of self-esteem that she had never had before.
Weiner feels a responsibility to chronicle her years. Her children rarely asked questions about her childhood, but her grandchildren have recently been asking her about what it was like to live in an orphanage. Weiner is taking a journalism class because she wants to learn how to pitch the book she's writing. Weiner has a large and organized folder which are the makings of her book.
Professor Lyndon Stambler says of his student, "Forget the Fountain of Youth. Trudy has discovered it: education. My younger students are learning a lot from her great, big smile and her wonderful attitude about life. Maybe they, too, will live productive lives into their 90s and beyond."
Says Weiner, "I always try something once." Then she adds, "I don't know to be afraid if I haven't tried it before."