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WILKES’ OLDEST GRADUATE ANNA ARNETT MA ’16 HAS TALES TO TELL

By Geoff Gehman

anna-arnett-mortarboard_wilkes

Bonnie Culver, director of Wilkes graduate creative writing program, prepares to recognize Anna Arnett as the University’s oldest graduate.  Photos by Linh Lam.

Kathleen “Kat” Ethington issued a gentle ultimatum in December 2013 to her then-89-year-old mother, Anna Arnett M.A. ’16.  It was high time, she told her mom, to write a book about her late Mormon parents, a pair of potato-farming school principals with a pioneer zest. She needed to preserve her tales on paper for her seven children, 28 grandchildren and 49 great-grandchildren.

That day Arnett at her Mormon church in Chandler, Ariz., she learned about the Wilkes Weekender Program in creative writing at the nearby Mesa Center for Higher Education. For once, Arnett – who describes herself as a “procrastinator from the word go” — defied her tendency to dillydally, driving that same day to the center. Learning that her late husband’s military benefits would pay for the degree, she enrolled. Two years and many written pages later, she became the oldest graduate in Wilkes history, earning her master’s degree in creative writing at 92. In the process she completed a memoir of her parents’ early lives called Forever Endeavor.

Arnett’s family story could be the basis for an epic novel. Her mother grew up on a cattle ranch in a log cabin with a dirt floor, a dirt roof and a “nice” fireplace. It was a hardscrabble start for a salt-of-the-earth mom of five who taught kindergarten. Her father was an innovative math teacher who let students proceed at their own pace and tested them without written exams. A shrewd psychologist, he awarded a 1916 silver dollar to the first pupil who finished a book’s exercises. “And that was back when a silver dollar would buy something,” says Arnett, who playfully adds that her dad didn’t scold her for hating math. “Numbers play hide and seek in my brain,” she says.

Arnett’s husband, Charles, was an Air Force pilot imprisoned in an abandoned German concentration camp during World War II. She married him 10 days after he proposed, eager to erase the discomfort of two years of separation. “It’s what you call a whirlwind courtship,” she says. It was so whirlwind, she adds merrily, that she flunked all her college finals.

Like many military wives, she followed her husband to assignments in Australia, Japan and 16 states, moving her family 29 times. After completing a year-long hitch alone in Vietnam, Charles urged Arnett to resume her college education. At age 45, with her oldest child in high school and her youngest child entering kindergarten, she enrolled at Arizona State University. At night she studied in the bathroom, the only place with a light that wouldn’t wake her sleeping loved ones.

She earned a bachelor’s degree in secondary education, followed by a master’s in teaching secondary English. She put the disciplines to work by by co-founding, teaching at and directing a school for pregnant teens and leading an association of women who wrote at night.

Returning to school many years later at Wilkes, Arnett still fit in well with her much younger classmates, who dubbed her “Miss Anna.” She impressed poet Spencer Aubrey MA ’16 with her wit, wisdom and keenly rendered stories about her parents. Aubrey, a part-time surveyor of new subdivisions, says “Miss Anna” is inspiring his poems about single mothers, including his sister.

She charmed Darcy Breault MA ’16 with her positive attitude, strict attention to good grammar and stylish outfits of pink T-shirt, yoga pants and “cute” boots. Breault, a supervisor of college-credit programs for five high schools, says she’s more likely to weave fiction into nonfiction thanks to Arnett. “She would tell us: You never get to an age when you can’t focus on writing and you can’t be publishing,” says Breault. “You can always be following your dream.”

Arnett also found an ally in her Wilkes faculty advisor, J. Michael Lennon, professor emeritus of English and co-founder of the creative writing program. Lennon praises Arnett’s panoramic, probing portrait of Mormon migration. “She is a superb writer with an eye like a pair of tweezers for the telling detail. Through her mother’s journals, and her own memories, she has put us in close touch with that golden time in American history when Mormon families walked across a continent to build lives in the West,” Lennon says.

Arnett thanks Lennon for instilling a dedication to deadlines, easing her procrastination. She thanks her Wilkes classmates for easing the loneliness she’s felt since the 2008 death of her husband Charles.  “He was the most perfect man I could have stood to live with,” Arnett says fondly. According to daughter Kat Ethington, with whom she lives, “Wilkes’ program made (my mother) feel more productive and more important. It definitely enhanced her life.”

Arnett continues to enhance her life by pursuing a master of fine arts in creative writing at Wilkes. Lennon is guiding her research paper on great teachers in literature. As far as she’s concerned there’s still a lot she wants to do.

“It’s a fascinating, wonderful world and I’m not eager to leave it. I sometimes wonder at people who say they can hardly wait to get beyond this life to eternal peace and rest and praising God,” Arnett says. “That would be good for me for a week, but after that, you want something you have to do…. But life is good, life is great. When I’m down, I think how good it is and then I’m feeling up.”

Anna Arnett MA ’16, Chandler, Ariz.

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Anna Arnett is interviewed by Arizona news media about life-long learning.

Master of Arts, Creative Writing, Wilkes University

Master of Arts, Secondary Education, English, Arizona State University

Bachelor of Arts, Secondary Education, Arizona State University

Career: Self-published poet and memoirist. Founder and director of the first school for pregnant teens in Mesa, Ariz.

Noteworthy: Oldest graduate in Wilkes history at age 92.

 

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