For her final exam, Anna Marie Rittinger composed a vignette that began with a recent trip to her alma mater, where she (carrying a cane) and her closest friend (limping a little) were hailed by a student who told them cheerily that they had left their headlights on.
"We gave one another a laughing glance and remarked that we could have been that svelte, book-laden coed 50 years ago," Rittinger wrote on the personal computer she learned to master in classes this summer at Countryside Manor.
Last Tuesday, Rittinger, 71, graduated all over again, joining 17 capped-and-gowned classmates in the retirement home's lobby and receiving a certificate from Marymount University -- proof, said state Sen. Charles L. Waddell (D-Loudoun) with apologies to Aristotle, that education is the best provision for any age.
Through its Loudoun County campus, Marymount offered three courses -- on the local environment, the Civil War and Loudoun County history, and computer literacy -- to manor residents and any other takers. The oldest participant, Elizabeth Markle, will be 95 in two weeks.
Class speaker Erna Garner, 86, pronounced the nature class "wonderful," with its attention to the county's water supply (including the clams, crabs and snakes therein) and potential pollution problems wrought by development.
The Civil War, she said with irrepressible partisanship, left "mixed feelings of sympathy for the brave soldiers of the North and for the wonderful soldiers who worked so hard for the South." (Garner was born in Washington, which may have been Union at the time but is nonetheless, as Waddell observed later, south of the Mason-Dixon line.)
But it was the computer class that captivated Garner and many of the other students who had accomplished their previous schooling with paper and pencil and maybe a slide rule for good measure. "This fabulous machine was a mystery," Garner began -- and confessed that even some of those who learned to compose stories and letters on it remain "completely baffled by their existence."
Edward Parks, director of Marymount's continuing education program, said the computer, donated by the developers of Countryside Manor, was such a hit that once they learned word-processing, some of the students graduated to computer games and other programs.
"Every day at least, someone is down there using it," said Becky Hilliard, activities director at Countryside Manor. Six students wrote stories on the computer and had such a good time doing it that other students, initially disinclined to undertake such a project, have set out to compose their own.
After polishing, the stories will be compiled into a book.
Half are wartime memories -- Rittinger's about working with her college chum in the Chrysler laboratories during World War II; Elmer Munsell's about work suddenly stopping at Alabama Drydock and Shipbuilding when news of the European victory arrived; Janet Norton's about her fear of the fiery Armistice Day celebrations in November 1918 and the "Spanish influenza," brought home by the doughboys, that nearly killed her baby sister a short time later.
Jane Curtis wrote hers about the day she played the zither for three debilitated patients who responded so uncharacteristically that "nurses gathered spellbound in the hallway."
Alone among the 18 Marymount "graduates" Tuesday, Curtis, 62, does not live at Countryside Manor, and her black gown was adorned with a blue sash emblematic of the doctorate she received 10 years ago in comparative literature at Catholic University.
"I thought it was high time to learn about computers," said Curtis, who is considering buying a small one for her home in McLean. As she went to join her classmates at a luncheon in their honor, she added, "I think it's wonderful that they make such a to-do about this."
"This is so much more fun than an ordinary graduation," Marymount's president, Sister Majella Berg, said before the ceremony. And they spared nothing: a recorded rendition of "Pomp and Circumstance" and framed diplomas -- Garner rising to accept hers with a roomwide smile and a proud sweep of her head to acknowledge the applause.