For USD graduate, retiring meant it was time for school Catherine Iverson entered The University of South Dakota at the age of 65. Now 74, she graduated Saturday with a bachelor of fine arts degree with an emphasis in painting. (Photo by Kellie Smedsrud, Yankton P&D) by Randy Dockendorf For many people who reach 65 years old, it's time to retire and relax. For Catherine (Flevares) Iverson, it was time to go to school.
Iverson capped nine years of study Saturday when she joined nearly 900 University of South Dakota graduates receiving degrees at the DakotaDome. At 74 years of age, Iverson accepted her bachelor of fine arts degree with an emphasis in painting.
"I had worked in hospitals my entire life, and I was accredited in clinical pathology and histology," she said. "When I retired, my cousin Mary Welchert was in the USD business school studying health administration, and she encouraged me to start college."
People might expect a lifelong health-care worker to pursue a science degree rather than art, Iverson said. However, she sees her artwork as a
welcome change in her life.
"I have worked with histology, which deals with death, tumors and tissues. It's not uplifting," she said. "But I have a passion for art, especially painting pictures of architecture. When I observe a building, I feel pain in my heart because I am so filled with joy at its beauty."
Iverson said she loved art growing up in Yankton, and as a Sacred Heart School student her art was chosen for display at the State Fair. However, she grew up in the depths of the Depression where survival was a daily struggle and art was an unaffordable frill.
"I had the talent and interest, but our home had the bare necessities. There was no money or room for anything artistic," she said. "We had no phone or magazine, so I would read a book a day for years. I cleared the library out."
Iverson, the eldest of five children and the only girl in the family, was raised in a home which prized hard work. The children held down a number of jobs, and 13-year-old Iverson even served as a caregiver for a
paralyzed arthritic woman.
"My father was a Greek immigrant who worked as a chef in a restaurant seven days a week," she said. "My mother had a fourth-grade education but was fabulous in running our house. She would put up 500 quarts of fruits and vegetables each summer."
Iverson considered herself fortunate compared to others with nothing to eat. "You couldn't believe what the Depression was like. Neighbor children were given suckers for breakfast because people couldn't afford food," she said.
The Flevareses wanted their children to enjoy a better life, Iverson said.
"My parents were intelligent, and they stressed education. They wanted us to go to school to be successful," she said.
At that point in her life, Iverson decided to step aside and let her brothers attend college instead of her.
"My father said I should go on to school, but who would send my brothers to school? I told my father that I didn't want to go to school because he
already had so much on his plate," she said.
Brothers James, Constantine, George and Francis earned their degrees and entered the professions. They encouraged their sister likewise to attend college, but she pursued other plans.
"My brothers were after me to go to school. I took a couple of courses at Mount Marty while I was at Yankton High School, but I got married instead and worked at hospitals in Yankton, Vermillion and Sioux City," Iverson said.
While she didn't pursue formal education, Iverson took every opportunity to learn on the job and advance her career. She studied for weeks and successfully passed her examination for national accreditation.
"I think my experience really helped. I was self-taught and self-made," she said. "My husband had heart trouble at 43 years old, and I worked to take
care of the family."
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Iverson found other avenues for self-improvement, such as Toastmasters which improved her public-speaking skills. She received training for foster child care and hospice care, and she was a rape-crisis advocate.
She also continued her passion for the fine arts as a pianist and a collector of antiques, art and books. She traveled extensively across the country, gaining new experiences.
"When I retired and my cousin encouraged me to attend college, I said 'Why not?'," she said. "If you're not learning, you're not living. Once you stop being interested, there is no direction in life."
Iverson said she didn't feel intimidated by the age difference between her and most of her fellow USD students.
"In a mothering sense, if there was any way I could help them, I would," she said. "These kids are smart, but experience is the best teacher, good or bad, and I can offer it."
Some observers might consider Iverson's degree a payback for her support of past USD students. She had housed a Malaysian student who otherwise would have been forced to return home.
"He graduated with highest honors in math and called me his 'American mother'," she said. "He asked what he could do for me, and I told him he could send his brother over here for an education. The brother stayed with me and also got his degree."
For Iverson, Saturday marked not only her graduation but the closing of her art exhibit on the USD campus. As Iverson sought subjects for the
gallery exhibit completing her degree, she was drawn to a 1911 Victorian farmhouse north of Vermillion.
"It's unusual because it was a two-story log cabin with a dormer. I was drawn to the architecture and felt its calling," she said. "My friend knew the place and took a picture of it. I worked with the photograph in creating a painting of it."
The picture drew raves from her three children � Leah Hedges, James Iverson and Janine Tolan � who traveled together from their San Diego, CA, homes to attend Saturday's graduation.
"I am thrilled to death for her. I think it's great to see her fulfill a lifelong dream," Tolan said.
James Iverson agreed, looking at a copy of her work. "She is a very good painter. I always think there is an osmosis, where you draw on talent and creativity," he said.
George Flevares, who was hosting the family in his Yankton home, said he was proud of his sister's achievements. "I think it's wonderful for her. It keeps her young," he said.
Catherine Iverson said she was stunned to see her children attend her graduation.
"I really didn't tell anybody about finishing my degree. I didn't send out any announcements," she said. "But when my children heard I was graduating, they immediately said they were all coming out here. It makes me feel so good that they would do something like that."
What does the future hold for Iverson? She's not sure, but she doesn't plan to slow down anytime soon.
"I saw a 19-year-old girl die of toxic-shock syndrome. It proved to me that life doesn't promise or give you anything," she said. "I have proved it's never too late. You have to seize the day and do the best you can with life. Then it will take care of itself."