65-year-old great-grandmother among Livingstone graduates
SALISBURY — When she decided to earn a college degree, 65-year-old Vernell McCullough wanted the complete undergraduate experience.
She enrolled in day classes at Livingstone College, not the evening program favored by most nontraditional students.
She ate in the cafeteria, walked to classes and struggled with homework.
McCullough even lived in the dorms for two years.
“I wanted to make a change,” she says simply, explaining why a great-grandmother and associate AME Zion pastor from Rock Hill, S.C. would not only go back to college in her seventh decade but subject herself to dorm life.
McCullough’s unusual path would prove a wise choice. She didn’t know it at the time, but her decision to enroll in the religious studies program at Livingstone and live in the residence halls, surrounded by women in their teens and early 20s, would provide the strength and support she would need in her darkest hours.
Tears streamed down McCullough’s cheeks Saturday when she emerged from Varick Auditorium, diploma in hand and great-granddaughter Mellody Richardson, 8 months old, in her arms.
Tears of joy but also tears of sorrow, McCullough said, as she remembered her teenage grandsons, Kelvin Richardson and big brother Matthew Richardson — Mellody’s father — who died Nov. 18, 2012 in a car accident in South Carolina.
McCullough earned her degree, she said, for them.
Blending right in
Born in Chester County, S.C. and raised in Baltimore by an aunt and uncle, McCullough moved back to the South and graduated from high school in Rock Hill in 1966.
Afraid to peek at the 2013 Livingstone annual last week for fear of how old she would look compared to her classmates, McCullough was thrilled to discover she blended right in.
“Your youth is showing,” one professor told her. “You took good care of yourself.”
McCullough attended technical college after high school and opened an in-home day care, which she ran with her mother in Rock Hill for 20 years. Nell’s Home Day Care should have been called “Nell’s Child Development Center” for all the education she gave the children, McCullough said.
While she was hospitalized seven years ago, McCullough said she felt called to further her own education.
“I got my incentive from God,” she said. “I didn’t pick this on my own.”
McCullough was pursuing ordination in the AME Zion church and said she felt outdone when she was in the pulpit by people in the congregation with college degrees.
“How can you direct somebody in the right pathway unless you know the path to take?” she said. “How can I teach people if I’m not taught?”
She graduated from Clinton Junior College in 2009 with an associate’s degree, the oldest graduate in the class. She was ordained that year as well.
But a two-year degree wasn’t enough. McCullough wanted a bachelor’s degree and enrolled at Livingstone.
In 2010, she moved into Harris Hall. The next year, McCullough’s GPA earned her a room in Honors Hall, where she remained through 2012.
At first, McCullough said she was concerned about noise and rowdy behavior. But the students treated her with respect, she said.
She recalled one night when the noise picked up after 9 p.m.
“You know Mrs. McCullough go to bed at nine o’clock! You can’t be making all that noise,” one student called out.
“It’s not Mrs. McCullough, it’s Rev. McCullough!” the offender called back.
And the noise stopped.
Rather than taking offense at having a senior citizen in their midst, the students embraced McCullough, she said, dubbing her “Mommy,” “Mother” and “Rev.”
“It was beautiful. I was treated like a queen,” she said. “I was the taxi, the doctor, the nurse, the counselor and then the prayer warden.”
She hemmed skirts, dried tears, corrected bad grammar and even cooked Thanksgiving dinner at home and delivered it to the dorm. When they had a problem, McCullough said, her “children” in the dorm hunted her down for help or advice.
If students cursed, it only took a stern look from Rev to elicit a quick apology.
“They would say, ‘Oh I’m sorry,’” McCullough said. “I would say, ‘Don’t apologize to me. I’m directing you in the path of the righteous one.’”
McCullough went home to Rock Hill every weekend, and when she arrived on campus Sunday nights, her girls would be sitting on the bench, ready to take her bags to her room.
They became friends, the great-grandmother and the coeds. McCullough also befriended professors, teachers, cafeteria workers and just about anyone else at Livingstone, which she calls her “great community.”
“They are beautiful people,” she said. “They were marvelous toward me, and I tried to do the same for them.”
Thoughts of quitting
Despite her age, hectic schedule and rigorous course requirements, McCullough said she never felt overwhelmed at Livingstone or questioned her decision to return to college.
Never, until Matthew and Kelvin died.
McCullough and her grandsons were extremely close, she said. When she went back to school, McCullough and the boys would challenge each other to earn the best grades.
“Nana, guess what?” Matthew, 19, would call to say after an exam. “I made an A. What you got?”
“I made three A’s,” McCullough would respond. “How many did you make?”
And back and forth it would go, Matthew and little brother Kelvin, 17, competing with their grandmother to see who could rack up the most A’s.
After the boys died, McCullough suffered depression. She could not concentrate, and her body ached. She cried all the time.
She was ready to quit.
But the community she had built at Livingstone rallied around her, embracing McCullough and offering her many of the comforts she had provided them.
“Oh my goodness, when they found out, I was showered with love,” she said. “I felt support from the dining room to the staff to the children, everywhere on campus.”
McCullough said her biology teacher, Dr. Selma Burrell, was a particular source of strength, staying after class to hold McCullough as she cried and listen to her. Across campus, students and staff responded to the tragedy, sharing their sorrow and faith with McCullough, she said. She also attended grief counseling.
“I thank God that I was at Livingstone, because if I had gone through this without the love of the students and faculty and people in the cafeteria, I don’t think I could have made it,” she said.
Their message was loud and clear, McCullough said, “You can’t quit. We need you.”
“That gave me strength,” she said.
Then, with characteristic humor, she added, “That, along with some pills. I won’t tell a lie. I had to have something to keep me going. And I’m still going.”
Helping others, helping herself
Helping others did the most to help herself, McCullough said. She continued to hold weekly Bible study classes in the dorms and maintained a prayer list that grew to more than 100 names.
She prayed for every name on the list. When prayers were answered, word spread.
“Everyone wanted their name on that list,” she said with a laugh.
McCullough’s brand new bachelor’s degree won’t boost her salary. She earns no paycheck as associate pastor for Indian Hill AME Zion Church in Fort Mill, S.C., where she works under the Rev. Linda Hill.
McCullough will continue to make weekly trips at night to areas of Rock Hill where she knows the homeless live, under bridges and behind bushes. They recognize her car, she said, and come out for a blanket or meal cooked in her home and then transported.
She volunteers at the Haven Men’s Shelter in Rock Hill and visits the sick and shut-in. In her carport, she stores cookware, living room furniture, clothing and anything else people are willing to donate, then distributes the items to needy families.
“Some of my neighbors say, your carport is so junky, it looks like Sanford and Son,” McCullough said. “And I say thank you Jesus! Hallelujah!”
Divorced for 30 years, McCullough said she and her ex-husband remain best friends and share care of their adult son, Jermaine. His twin died as an infant.
Her mother passed away in 2004 and father in 2005, but McCullough remains surrounded by a large family that obviously adores her.
Many of them traveled Saturday to Salisbury to witness their mother, godmother, sister, grandmother and great-grandmother walk across a stage with people 45 years her junior and accept a diploma that represents a lifetime of self-improvement.
Dr. Michael Ellis, McCullough’s religion professor, said he’s never had a student like her. Loved and respected by her classmates, McCullough exemplified commitment and dedication and never gave up, despite her own “perilous fight,” Ellis said.
“She’s the first of her kind,” he said. “I hope others will come behind. She was a powerful light and presence here.”
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.