‘Something to talk about:’ Danville woman continuing her education at 89

Published 7:45 am Saturday, February 3, 2018

Danville newcomer Clara Maddox has an insatiable appetite for knowledge, especially when it comes to literature, art and history.

The next subject she’s looking forward to studying at Centre College is philosophy — a topic she’s never tackled.

But Clara isn’t a typical college student. She doesn’t lug around a heavy backpack of books. She doesn’t hang out at Cowan dinning commons with friends. And she doesn’t party on the weekends.

Email newsletter signup

But like many college students, she takes her education seriously — so seriously that she’s gone back to college more than once and still takes classes today at age 89.

Clara earned her first master’s degree from Columbia University in the early 1950s in social work.

When she retired in Louisville at age 70, she went back to school and received a master’s degree in liberal arts at Bellarmine College.

She then earned a third master’s degree, this time in art history, from the University of Louisville.

“I was about 78, or something like that,” she said, seated at the large round dinning table at her Danville home while sipping coffee from a heavy mug.

Clara is still able to satisfy her intellectual curiosity as a “community student” by auditing classes at Centre that interest her.

“I like taking classes for several reasons,” she said. “It could be warding off old age. And, because it gives me something to talk about.”

Clara said when you get old, there often isn’t much to talk about anymore.

“But I think one of the main reasons is it stimulates me. It stimulates my thinking,” she said. “It broadens my thinking.”

Clara moved to Danville nearly three years ago after living 40 years in Louisville, where she had a career as a child welfare worker and family therapist, which is really a “good ol’ social worker,” she said.

When she experienced an “Alzheimer episode … it was a big one,” she decided it was time to move closer to one of her sons, who lives in Danville.

“After years and years and years of marriage and having children, I got old.”

She said after moving here, she got homesick for Louisville.

“But the stimulation I got from the classes helped me adapt and, I guess, enjoy Danville.”

Clara said she didn’t realize how rich Danville is in its history, arts, lectures and classes that are offered. 

In addition to classes at Centre, She enjoys visiting the Community Arts Center and takes Starry Night Studio painting classes.

Clara also attends lectures and participates in two book clubs at the public library.

“I love to learn.”

The first class Clara audited at Centre was Greek history, taught by Dr. James Morrison.

“I’m so glad I took Greek history because it brought back how great Greece is with democracy and philosophers and its culture.”

Also, since her granddaughter studied Greek and Latin at Bowdoin College, she now has something in common to discuss with her.

One of her regrets though, was that she never got to travel to Greece.

She’s also taken courses on Roman history and 18th century English literature.

She read and studied works such as “Robinson Crusoe” and those written by Samuel Johnson.

Clara thought “Gulliver’s Travels” was interesting, but the writing style and long paragraphs “was boring as hell.”

“After that came Dickens, and that was not boring,” she said. “He can tell a good story.”

Her favorite class so far was taught by Dr. Helen Emmitt on Irish writers.

“That was the crown!”

Although she loves to learn, she says her age “is working somewhat against me … my age certainly is a handicap.”

She is looking forward to having cataract surgery later this month. She said she’ll be able see better to read, and hopefully drive again — even though her driving is limited to Lexington Avenue, Walnut Street, Centre and the library.

Clara gave up driving to Kroger because the traffic was too much to deal with. “I’m a little too old for that.”

In late December, Clara also suffered a mild stroke. She said the doctors told her there wasn’t any damage — no paralysis or brain damage.

“I think some of that may be due to the fact of my studying,” she said.

Because of her poor eyesight right now, Clara’s son, Gregory Maddox, will be taking her to and from the next class she enrolled in — 17th and 18th century philosophy.

In fact, he’s taking the class with his mother.

“Isn’t that neat?” she asked.

They’ll buy the books, read the assignments, then talk about what they’ve learned. She thinks they’ll have some really good discussions around her table.

She usually sits quietly in the classroom and doesn’t often answer a professor’s question — unless it’s apparent the students don’t know the answer.

“The classes are for the students,” she said. “They paid big money to be there.”

By gaining knowledge, one’s imagination flourishes. “Like Romans fighting and Hannibal crossing the Alps … all that stuff.”

So, instead of thinking about all of her illnesses, Clara thinks and wonders things like, “How did that Hannibal manage to do all of that?”

“I don’t know how much longer I can take these courses,” she said. “But we’ll see.”

Early years

Clara was born in Frankfort to her dad Pete Luchini and his wife, Emma Rose — “Isn’t that a pretty name?” Clara asked.

Her life in Frankfort “was just wonderful.” They lived in a neighborhood named Capital Heights, which sits above the state capitol. When she was a child, all of the land surrounding the capitol was “tobacco and farm land and cows and horses.”

Her dad opened the first restaurant in the south end of the city. It was called “Pete’s Corner” and was popular in the 1920s and 1930s, Clara said.

Her dad was born in Borga, Italy, and left home when he was 13. He worked in Scotland for a while and soon was able to move to the United States.

After marrying her mother and having four children, Pete retired at a young age and wanted to move back home to Italy. “He missed his mother,” Clara said. 

But her mother refused because she didn’t want to uproot her young family.

Then “the greatest tragedy of my family” occurred, when her 13-year-old brother, Petie, was hit and killed by a vehicle in 1937.

She said that was when her mother agreed to pack up the children and move with Pete back to Borga. Clara was 9.

While living in Italy, it was only natural that Clara learn Italian — a language that still easily rolls off her tongue during conversations.

In 1939, her father took her older brother, Eugene, who was 18 or 19 at the time, and went back to the U.S. when Hitler invaded Poland.

“I’m sure — not that it was ever told to us — he wanted to get Eugene out of Italy. He didn’t want him to get drafted by the Italian army.”

Clara remained with her mother and older sister in Borga during World War II. “We saw war.”

In December of 1945, the three women moved back to America.

Clara said she attended the University of Kentucky, where she received a bachelor of arts degree in social work.

Then she wanted to attend Columbia University for a master’s. She said people told her she’d never be accepted, but “I got into Columbia because I knew I would.”

Clara said on her application, she wrote about experiencing World War II.

“There was no other applicant that had war years like I had.”