87-year-old fulfills dream
By Sarah Campbell
SALISBURY — Martha Rhea Hartley Platt’s only regret in life is missing her college graduation.
But soon she’s wiping the slate clean.
More than half a century after receiving her bachelor’s degree from Catawba College, the 87-year-old Salisbury resident will participate in the pomp and circumstance.
Platt will join nearly 200 undergraduates in Keppel Auditorium for the school’s spring commencement ceremony Saturday.
She’s already got her gown pressed and her cap waiting by the front door of her house ready to go.
“This is just a dream for me,” she said. I can’t believe it’s happening, I’m so excited.”
Debbie Garrigues set out to make her aunt’s dream a reality as soon as she heard her mention her regret about missing her own commencement exercises.
“I thought maybe there was something I could do,” Garrigues said.
After a couple of phone calls to Catawba, the deal was sealed.
“We’re very pleased that our current and former students take pride in Catawba College,” Joe Oxendine, Catawba’s interim president, said. “Mrs. Platt’s plans to finally ‘walk’ these many years after completing her course work is an inspiring example of that pride.”
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Platt missed her graduation in 1959 after a mix-up caused her to be one class short of graduating.
“I was ready to graduate in the spring that year, and I went to see my adviser and he said, ‘Everything looks good,’ ” she said. “Then he realized I took the same French class that I did in high school.”
That’s when the tears started flowing.
“I was just hurt so badly,” she said.
But a meeting with then-president Dr. A.R. Keppel gave her hope.
“He said if you can get Spanish somewhere else we will count it here at the college,” she said.
That summer, Platt completed Spanish at Davidson County Community College, where she was the only female in the class.
“They sent me my diploma in the mail and I was just happy to get it,” she said. “I never thought I would feel this way, but later I got to thinking I would have loved to participate in the activities and gone across that stage and let them hand me my diploma.”
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Platt said part of the heartbreak of missing her college graduation came from the fact that she worked so hard to finish her coursework.
After graduating from Boyden High School in 1945 she began classes at Catawba.
But more than a year later, she decided to drop out.
“I decided maybe this is not for me, so I got out and I took all kinds of jobs,” she said.
After years of working odd jobs at JCPenney and local grocery stores, she decided it was time to go back to school.
“I didn’t know if I could do it because my father had retired and he was not able to help me financially,” she said.
So Platt kept working odd jobs and found a steady income as a choir director at a country church in Thomasville.
Knowing she would never be able to save enough money to pay tuition in one lump sum, she asked if she could make monthly payments.
“I was desperate,” she said. “They were good to me and let me do that. I couldn’t have gone had I not done that.”
Platt started classes again in 1951, completing her coursework eight years later.
“It was terribly hard because I was older and I didn’t have any money,” she said. “There was a lot of midnight oil burned, believe me.”
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Platt said she’s thankful she got back on track with her education.
“It’s opened up many doors for me,” she said. “It opened the door to a profession that I had always wanted; it allowed me to be a teacher.”
Platt worked as an educator for nearly 30 years, starting out as a third-grade teacher in Davidson County.
Later, she studied speech pathology at Western Carolina University and took classes in marketing and fashion merchandising from Forsyth Technical Community College.
“I’ve done everything in the education field and I’ve enjoyed every bit of it.”
As the first college gradate from her family, Platt inspired Garrigues to pursue higher education.
“I felt if Martha Rhea could do it, I could do it,” she said.
Platt said she’s proud to be able to light that spark.
“I would just like to encourage anybody who thinks they can’t do it to go on and try for it,” she said. “If I could have done it, I know everybody else can.”
Platt said even though it took her a while to realize the importance of education, it’s something her parents never wavered on.
“It was just expected of me,” she said. “We didn’t have a lot of extra money, so I know daddy and my mother both denied themselves of many things in order to send me and my sister to piano and voice lessons.”
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Platt said she’s looking forward to being back on Catawba’s campus for graduation Saturday.
“I’ll have that hat on and that robe on, and I think it’s going to bring back a lot of memories,” she said. “I’m going to feel like a graduate. I never had the opportunity to feel that way.
Contact reporter Sarah Campbell at 704-797-7683.