92-year-old returns to Southern Utah University to finish degree

92-year-old Mary Butler in Cedar City, Utah, date not specified | Photo courtesy of Southern Utah University, St. George News

CEDAR CITY — At 92 years old, Mary Butler has lived a full life but she is far from finished reaching her goals. Butler has decided to fix her attention on a new accolade: finishing her bachelor’s degree in theater at Southern Utah University.

“One thing I have learned in life is that if your dreams don’t scare you to death – they are not big enough,” Butler said in a press release issued by the university. “At the age of 92 years, I am scared to death to go back to school to earn my degree but I am here and determined.”

Butler first attended SUU in her late sixties, where she originally planned to study history and political science, but an invite from a fellow student to be a part of a play set her on a course toward majoring in theater. Returning to school has taken a lot of courage for Butler, but coming back has been a challenge she is more than willing to face.

“I think, personally, the most beautiful word in the English language is courage,” she said. “I have always been afraid. One must have enough courage to face whatever comes and the determination to persist in life. Everybody’s afraid, it takes courage for all of us to face it.”

As she looks back on her life, Butler has been able to reflect on her interactions with SUU. Since first attending in 1989, the campus has more than doubled in size with the construction of over a dozen new buildings including the Science Center, the Library, the Physical Education Building, Motorpool, Alumni House, and the Costume Shop. The student population has also grown from roughly 6,000 students in 1989 to more than 11,000 students currently registered.

People walk towards Old Main, the campus’s first building, Southern Utah University, Cedar City, Utah, Aug. 17, 2019 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

While overwhelming, this change has brought about a more personalized and encouraging classroom for Butler.

“I think the classroom experience is much better, personally,” Butler said. “I realize I’m no expert on it, but I think you learn so much more. Every place I’ve gone on campus has just been wonderful to me. Even the comments that they put on my papers online have just been so nice.”

After originally joining the theater department, Butler found herself working in the costume shop, where she was able to apply her childhood understanding of sewing to create costumes for shows at SUU. Butler eventually left school to work full-time in the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s costume shop for nine years, leaving when she was seventy-eight years old.

Butler then took to travel, making several trips to Europe with her daughter as well as traveling within the country, both to visit family and to achieve her goal of spending a night in each state.

During her time outside of school, Butler raised a family of six, most of whom are now spread throughout the country, worked as a seminary teacher for eleven years, as well as teaching cosmetics, and is proud to say she was the first female advertising space saleswoman in her company.

Southern Utah University campus, Cedar City, Utah, date not specified | Photo courtesy of Southern Utah University, St. George News / Cedar City News

“Working in sales is a lot like theatre,” Butler said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re calling the president of the company with an audience of one or performing on stage with an audience of five thousand, it’s the same. I was the first woman hired on the road, and then I trained other women.”

As she returns to school, Butler is able to earn credit for much of her life experience in addition to the credit she earned when she first attended SUU. SUU’s Prior Learning Assessment offers up to fifteen credit hours to students based on their previous experience, giving Butler the opportunity to turn years of practice into credits toward her degree.

Butler’s deep and rich life has taught her many lessons, most of which she says she learned from failure. Her mistakes have taught her the value of hard work and education.

“My advice works for me, I’m not sure it works for everybody else,” Butler said. “I can only tell you that what’s gotten me where I am is hard work and it’s a lot easier, physically, to do hard work with a college degree.”

Butler would graduate with a bachelor’s degree at 96, making her the oldest graduate in SUU history.

“Mary Butler is an incredible individual who has a passion for life and learning that is contagious,” Roger LaMarca, executive director of enrollment management at SUU, said in the press release. “She not only seeks to gain personal knowledge but also enjoys motivating, supporting and encouraging others to pursue lifelong learning. We are the lucky ones to have her back with us at SUU.”

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