FHSU experience one for the record books for oldest graduate


By Diane Gasper-O'Brien
University Relations and Marketing
HAYS, Kan. -- One of Nola Ochs' favorite subjects was history, which she studied at Fort Hays State University while making history herself.

Ochs, the oldest student to graduate from FHSU, passed away Friday at the age of 105.

She brought notoriety to Fort Hays State when, at 95 years old, she set the Guinness Book of World Records mark in 2007 as the world's oldest college graduate. That record has been broken since then, and there are different accounts of who owns that distinction.

But one thing is for sure. Nola Ochs -- who informed people her branch of the family pronounces the last name "OHsh" -- will forever be a favorite of Fort Hays State University as its oldest graduate.

This story all began somewhere around 2003 when Ochs emailed Joleen Briggs about online classes at Fort Hays State. Oh, by the way, Ochs told Briggs, "I took a course at Fort Hays a long time ago."

Briggs, academic advisor in the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies, began researching what that course was called. It turns out, Ochs had completed a directed studies course in education in the summer of 1930, when FHSU was known as Kansas State Teachers College of Hays.

"I started doing the mental math, and thought, 'Now, wait a minute, to take a course in 1930, she must be …' " said Briggs, who promptly answered Ochs' email.

"I wrote, 'I have to ask you, are you 92?' " Briggs said. "She replied, 'Well, I was born in 1911.' "

Thus started a relationship that Briggs said she will treasure forever.

"By far and away, it was the best personal relationship with a student I have ever had," Briggs said.

After raising a family of four sons with her husband, Vernon, on a farm near Jetmore, Ochs began taking classes at nearby Dodge City Community College after her husband died in 1972. She also took classes at St. Mary of the Plains College in Dodge City, which closed in 1992.

Ochs had attained numerous college credits over the years and eventually earned her associate degree from DCCC.

Ochs enrolled in an online class at FHSU in the summer of 2006, and upon further checking, Briggs told Ochs she was only about 30 hours short of earning a bachelor's degree.

So Ochs enrolled full time at Fort Hays State, moved to campus and completed her bachelor's in one year while taking all upper-level classes.

In the process, she reached her goal of graduating from FHSU along with her granddaughter, Alexandra Ochs.

Ochs then enrolled at Fort Hays State for graduate school the next fall and earned a master's in liberal studies with a concentration in history in May 2010, just a few months shy of her 99th birthday.

"She wanted to continue taking classes until she was 100," Briggs said, "so she took some more history classes. She loved history."

In fact, Ochs wrote a book of her life's memoirs, which is in the process of being published.

She turned 100 on Nov. 22, 2011, and celebrated her 105th birthday last month.

Along the way, Briggs and Ochs developed -- and maintained -- a strong personal bond.

"We remained great friends through her graduate work," Briggs said. "She would come to my house. My kids got to know her. My friends got to know her."

Briggs said she remained in contact with Ochs and her family even after Ochs graduated. Funeral services are set for Thursday in Dodge City.

Briggs plans to be there, to pay tribute "to a well lived life."

"I started out as her advisor," Briggs said. "Throughout the journey, it turned into one of the best friendships I've ever had. And she was the one who taught me so many things.

"If there was a perfect human being out there, it was Nola," Briggs continued. "She was so kind, so smart. God was first for her, family was second and so on. Her faith was unshakeable. And even with all her accolades, her famous saying was that the thing she was most proud of was giving birth to and raising Vernon Ochs' four sons."

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