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Depression-era dream finally comes true for 90-year-old at Eckerd College graduation

ST. PETERSBURG — One by one, the graduates of Eckerd College crossed the stage Sunday morning beneath a big white tent.

The crowd politely clapped as men and women in black robes and caps accepted diplomas. Some cheered. Others whistled. One blew a bullhorn.

But of the 532 graduates, only one brought the audience to its feet with applause.

It was 90-year-old Ellen Nizzi.

She attained what had eluded her for so long: a bachelor's degree.

"It was a Depression dream that wasn't fulfilled," she said.

Nizzi's parents had hopes of sending her to college. When she was 7, her dad stopped her one day and told her she would go to college. Born and raised in Minneapolis, he thought the University of Minnesota would be a good fit.

But the Great Depression changed that.

Her father lost his job. Financial troubles set in. Piano lessons, let alone a college education, became too expensive.

Her family uprooted to Texas in 1935. She kept going to school, but by the time she graduated high school in 1939, college was too much for her parents.

So Nizzi stayed in Texas. She got married, had kids and helped her husband run their family's music store, the Nizzi Music Shoppe.

Nizzi's two daughters grew up. They graduated high school. They graduated college. Then they earned their doctorates. Their mother couldn't have been prouder.

But she still had her own dreams of going to college.

At 1999, Nizzi enrolled in a Texas junior college. She was 77.

She earned her associate's degree and eventually moved to Clearwater Beach after one of her daughters bought her a condo there. She started feeling antsy. Looking for something to occupy her time, she found a program at Eckerd College. She enrolled.

She studied creative writing. Culling a lifetime of experiences, she distinguished herself through her memoirs. She even drew the attention of U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson during his commencement speech Sunday.

"I bet some of her stories are some of the most interesting writings her professors have seen in a while," the Florida Democrat said.

Nizzi got up slowly from her plastic folding chair. The air inside the tent was thick.

Black cane in hand, a tangled head of white hair tucked under her black cap, she followed the other students as they wound their way to the side of the stage.

Photographers snapped pictures as she filed past. Strangers congratulated her. She climbed the steps onto the stage, beaming. The emcee read her name.

At first, the claps trickled in. Then they picked up. They got louder. People stood. The crowd erupted, cheering, shouting.

Nizzi dabbed at tears with her finger. She held up her degree and smiled. The crowd roared louder. She walked across the stage, and back down the steps.

"I'll tell you what I kind of think maybe," she said. "It was because of that Depression that I couldn't have an education. I think I beat the Depression today. You know what I mean? I outwitted it."

"The dream I had back in 1928 was fulfilled today," she said.

Depression-era dream finally comes true for 90-year-old at Eckerd College graduation 05/22/11 [Last modified: Sunday, May 22, 2011 9:52pm]
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