Twila Boston is Utah State’s oldest graduate to date. She was awarded her BS in American Studies in May. Photo by Tyson Bybee.
Spitfire and Determination
By Kristen Munson
Sometimes our lives and our dreams go in opposite directions. Twila Boston, ’12, believes it’s never too late to bring them together.
At 98, Twila Boston isn't as mobile as she used to be. Perched on the seat of a Steinway baby grand piano at her home in Providence, she talks of a time when she could easily navigate the Utah State campus to visit with professors. Nowadays, her books come delivered to her door. Stacks of paperbacks occupy her living room floor.
“I read all the time, I learn something all the time,” Boston said.
Her white hair falls midway down the back of her pale blue robe. When asked why she elected to complete her degree in American Studies this spring her eyes grow wide, her voice strong: “To learn something,” twisting her palms around her metal walker for emphasis.
Boston is the oldest graduate of Utah State identified by the university to date. She is unique from her peers in the Class of 2012 in that she isn’t going on the job market after graduation; she’s already had a career as a nurse and a mother. Instead, her diploma denotes a different type of achievement—a lifetime of learning.
An Uncommon Experience
“It’s an uncommon experience in all kinds of ways, not just because Twila is in her nineties and receiving her degree,” said Evelyn Funda, associate professor of English. “Many of our students get fixated on ‘what am I going to do with my degree?’ There are books written on what to do with an English degree. That isn’t Twila.”
After years of caring for others in her family, Boston inquired about coming back to college. University advisors found she was just a few credits shy of fulfilling the requirements for her degree and worked with faculty in the English department to develop a plan of study she could finish from home. Lessons were conducted over the phone and Boston participated in an oral history project describing life in Wayne County and what education was like for women in her day. Boston’s interview will be housed in the university archives and available to future scholars, Funda said.
She was born on a farm in Loa, Utah, in 1913 and inherited a good streak of tenacity from her father’s side. Her grandparents were homesteaders who settled just east of Thousand Lake Mountain. Boston’s job on the farm was to run the separator used to divide the cream from curd when making cheese. From an early age she learned the importance getting an education.
“The girls were expected to go to school and get as much education as the boys,” Boston said.
She can recall with perfect clarity where the general store was located, its proximity to the bishop’s house, who married whom and how many children they had or didn’t have. Her first memory is sitting with her father and sister and listening as they read a book—a passion she continues today despite a degenerative eye disease. While Boston has given up playing piano because she can no longer read the music, she is thankful she can still read her paperback books in just the right light.
A Model Matriarch
“There isn’t anything she won’t try to read or to learn,” said her daughter Ann Wilkins. “I do not know a subject she does not like.”
Over the years she studied subjects from geometry to Farsi and taken classes at various times at Willamette University, the University of Utah, Brigham Young University, and Utah State as she moved around the Intermountain West with her husband and children. Once bedridden for a spell, Boston reread the Bible—all but the last chapter—and the Koran.
“I would guess she reads 30-40 books a month,” Wilkins said. “Usually I take her a whole shoebox at a time.”
Wilkins, an elementary teacher for the past 35 years, was actually named for one of Boston’s grade school teachers.
“Education was just part of our family,” she said. “We always knew we would go to school—even in the olden days when girls didn’t go. We all had our master’s degrees in a day when you didn’t just do that. We loved to learn. It didn’t matter if it is in a museum or out of a text book. On road trips we wouldn’t get two feet down the road before getting out and seeing what all the signs said.”
Wilkins has anticipated her mother’s graduation from college for years. However, seeing her with a diploma in hand was never important to her.
“You don’t necessarily have to be in a classroom to continue learning,” Wilkins said. “We’re excited for [mother], but it doesn’t change anything. She’s still one of the most brilliant people I know. But I am sure she will be happy.”
‘A Great Life’
After high school Boston completed nurses training and worked in Salt Lake City. While on duty one evening she walked into her office and found a man standing inside. She told him to leave. However, the man, Dr. Alva Boston, was checking on one of his patients, and asked her out instead.
“Our first date we went to Lamb’s Café to have sandwiches and to go to the picture show,” Boston said. “The next night he asked me if I was off and I said I was. So we went to a picture show and to Lamb’s Café.”
That night they stayed talking in the café until closing. They were together for more than 60 years until he died in 1997. And only once did he go to bed without telling her goodnight—it was the last night he lived.
“I tell you I’ve had a great life,” Boston said. “I’m glad I was born in the family I was born in and I married the man I married.”
When asked how she would celebrate earning her bachelor’s degree Boston paused to consider.
“I guess I’ll still be here and read whatever paperback books they give me,” she said. “Maybe I will go to lunch.”
She began a slow migration towards the kitchen, stopping to tell a story or two in between steps. Each picture on her wall has one. Wind jangled the chimes on her front porch. She looked out the window.
“I would like to go to Australia and Alaska,” she said. “I think that sounds like fun.”
A Huge Milestone
There are a lot of words one could use to describe Boston. But “spitfire” is the first that comes to mind—at least for her granddaughter Michelle Tobin.
“She’s dynamic, she’s sharp, she’s opinionated,” Tobin said. “She can be very stubborn—in a good way. That’s where I get it from. But I don’t know anything better to describe her than spitfire.”
Tobin remembers sitting at her grandparents’ kitchen table reviewing flash cards of multiplication tables. She was five.
“I was well trained going into kindergarten,” she said. “[Twila] was always a firm believer in education. It definitely built the foundation of our entire family.”
Tobin, ’97, graduated with a degree in political science from USU. During her studies, she and Boston frequently debated about politics.
“She liked to hear about what you were doing and learning,” Tobin said.
When she discovered her grandmother was graduating she purchased a plane ticket from Virginia so she wouldn’t miss it.
“It was a huge milestone for her,” Tobin said. “Regardless of what people’s perceptions of what she should be doing at age 93, 95, 96, it’s always been something she wanted to do. I can’t imagine not being there. She’s been such a key person in my education and career. What an honor to walk her across the stage.”