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'I want to understand why we’re here': 101-year-old Virginia woman goes to college

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Posted at 11:48 AM, Oct 11, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-11 17:22:12-04

DINWIDDIE COUNTY, Va. — Perched on the porch of the Dinwiddie home where she has lived since 1987, Ruth Thompson watches the world pass right in front of her.

“Just very nice and peaceful. Relaxing,” Thompson said. “Cars come by every once in a while. Not a lot of world comes by here.”

Inside the home, framed loved ones from another era stare and listen to her play piano.

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“There aren’t many days I don’t sit down and play something,” she said. “Oh, I play in the church, so I have to practice. I taught myself to play.”

Thompson possesses talent and tenacity. She’s learned and lived through a lot since her birth on April 26, 1920.

Do the math.

Ruth Thompson is 101-years-old.

Ruth remembers Herbert Hoover in the White House.

“I remember the Crash,” she said. “The stock market crash.”

The youngest of six children, she can still hear the family’s first radio.

“The night we listened to Roosevelt was elected for the first time.”

Technology has evolved in Ruth Thompson’s home. She is regularly scrolling on her iPhone and iPad. One thing remains constant. Her insatiable thirst for knowledge.

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“I can entertain myself for hours,” she said. “I look up stuff all of the time. Me and Google are on a first name basis!”

On this day, she studies the Federalist Papers. The documents were written right after the American Revolution.

“The intelligence of these founders of our country can never be duplicated,” she said.

Her learning is not relegated to the information superhighway.

“Oh, I get out every day,” she said. “Hardly a day passes that I don’t get out.”

Every Thursday morning, Ruth rides not to the library or adult daycare center. She goes to college. Ruth Thompson is enrolled at Richard Bland College at William and Mary, a student in Dr. Adam Zucconi’s American Government class.

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“I want to understand why we’re here. How America came about,” she said.

She has her classmates beat by 80 years of life experience.

“I’m not trying to stay young,” she said. “I am just enjoying every day that I have.”

Thompson has been taking courses on and off for about eight years.

“The nation was typically what we say is 1789 as we said in class today for the Federalist Papers, and she’s been alive for more than a third of it,” Professor Zucconi said.

Zucconi called Thompson a model student who could probably be the substitute teacher.

"I remember when she was a spry 97 years old in my first class, and she displayed that same intellectual curiosity,” Zucconi said.

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Ruth Thompson is a college student whose major is living.

“You have no idea how many older people I’ve tried to encourage to come back to school,” she said. “I’ve been blessed. I’ve been extremely blessed.”

At her pace, she doesn’t expect to earn a diploma. But this senior on campus has already earned an “A” for effort.

“I can’t imagine anybody not being well and not wanting to enjoy life as much as possible,” she said. “Use it or lose it.”

Ruth Thompson still drives and swims. She credits her longevity to her faith and never drinking alcohol or smoking cigarettes.

Greg McQuade at WTVR first reported this story.