“Better late than never.”
This is the advice that Leona Metzger Ford, the oldest alum to ever serve on the USAO Alumni Association’s Executive Board, has for students and graduates. Ford turned 95 years old in June and continues to live this motto, recently accepting the invitation by the board to serve a two-year term for her district.
Ford said that when she received the call last year from a board member asking her to consider the position, she thought, “Boy, they are really scraping the bottom of the barrel now!” She clearly enjoys poking fun at her own age; however, board members recognize the experience and wisdom that she brings to the table. At a recent board meeting, Vice President Ann O’Bar spoke about the honor of having a “mentor” like Ford involved at the university.
“Better late than never,” also refers to Ford returning to the Oklahoma College for Women, now USAO, to complete her degree in the late 1950s, almost 20 years from the time she first began. Leona initially decided to attend, in her words, the “prestigious and nationally-recognized OCW” during the dust bowl of the 1930s. She greatly enjoyed her time there, but left after only one year to marry and raise a family. Still, she took with her many fond memories, specifically the trips on roller skates to the campus bakery for a two-cent loaf of bread.
Unfortunately, times weren’t easy during the next couple decades. Ford’s husband served in the World War II during the 1940s and later had an accident that caused him to lose most of his eyesight. Thus, Ford found herself suddenly in the position of solely supporting her spouse and their three children. With this heavy financial burden, she tried to use what she knew of farming to grow mustard, turnips and wild polk “sometimes just to pay for gas.”
“If it weren’t for my returning to OCW and finishing my degree, I wouldn’t have been able to support my family. We probably would have ended up becoming dependent on welfare,” she said.
Ford returned to OCW and completed her bachelor’s in home economics and social sciences in 1956, along with a master’s degree several years later. It’s probably safe to say, considering the times, that she was one of the university’s first non-traditional students. At almost 40 years old, Ford was breaking the mold and setting new standards for married women with families.
“I made a lot of good friends during those years at OCW, mostly with the faculty and staff since they were closer to my age than the majority of students,” she said.
Ford said many of her favorite memories at OCW were at the Home Management House, currently the newly remodeled Stevens Alumni House, which offered hands-on training to the home economics majors.
“I had such a good time making dinner there for the professors, dean, and the university president, Dr. Procter!”
In addition, Ford had her first television appearance when crews came out to OCW in 1955 in order to produce a special feature on the highly acclaimed Home Management House. She believes she was singled out by editors to showcase the house because of her brand new white suit, a gift for the occasion from her pastor’s wife.
After graduation, Ford soon found work that allowed her to take better care of her family. She taught elementary school, in both gifted and special education programs, in her hometown of Apache and then for many years in California.
Later, after returning to her home state to be with her aging father—who eventually lived to be the “oldest man on the planet” at 111 years old—she was hired at Eakly Public Schools as the first female school superintendent in the entire nation. Consequently, in 1962 she was invited to Washington D.C. to receive special recognition for this achievement in front of the U.S. Congress.
Yet, despite such impressive accolades, Ford remains humble. These days, she enjoys her simple life and claims to “constantly keep busy with two dogs, a large garden and local church activities.”
When asked if she had any words of wisdom for current students, Ford said, “Stay awake!” She explains that this means to stay alert in class and be careful not to miss out on anything. “It’s important to appreciate the opportunity you have to earn such an education while you have it.”
Furthermore, Ford’s advice to USAO graduates is simply to “give back.” She urges alums to follow her example in remembering to help out their communities and in remembering to continue helping the college who gave them the gift of a quality education.
For instance, Ford made a big difference in her own town by offering to open her home to the Head Start preschool program for underprivileged children for about a decade back in the 1980s. Now, even at age 95 she remains active in many organizations such as Girls State and the USAO Alumni Association. Furthermore, she continues to encourage other alums to do what they can for the university, even if it’s only a little.
In fact, at a recent board meeting of the USAO Alumni Association, she informed members that she had once pledged just $100 per year to USAO for 10 consecutive years. She explained that if many alums would do something similar, something seemingly small, it would add up and make a huge impact on the school. Most importantly, it would tremendously help the students who depend on scholarships every year to pay much of their tuition expenses.
Ford reminds others that you don’t have to be wealthy to make a difference. She has said, “I’m rich—but not with money!” She believes that one of her best assets in life is the education she earned at OCW and that it changed her life, opening a world of opportunities which she otherwise would not have had.
Looking back on these stories, it’s easy to agree with the board’s assessment of Ford as a true mentor. She remains proof that it’s truly “never too late” to better your life and continues to set an inspirational example for entire generations of USAO graduates.
A 1950s clipping of an article that Leona Metzger Ford wrote for the student newspaper, The Trend, while she was attending the Oklahoma College for Women.