It's Never Too Late To Graduate
After nine decades of life, love and lessons, Joyce Lowenstein is now looking forward to earning her diploma.
On a first date, Larry Lowenstein asked the pretty woman across the table for her hand.
She coyly offered it. Larry took her fingers in his. He turned her palm up, and his face grew serious — he’d just finished a book on palm reading.
I see that in your future, he said, you will marry me.
Roll over, Nostradamus.
In 1973, a happily married Joyce Lowenstein left home in New York City where her silver-tongued husband Larry ran a respected public relations firm, press agenting to the stars: Elizabeth Taylor, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, and Benny Goodman, among many. (He repped Zest soap and Crest toothpaste, too.) The couple moved to Atlanta to start a new chapter, he in public relations and she in antiques and interior design.
If Larry, the fortune teller, had studied Joyce’s palm more deeply, he’d have predicted even more: Joyce, when you turn 90 years of age … you’ll be in your senior year of college at Georgia State University … you’ll have top grades as an art history major … you’ll pull all-nighters to finish papers, just like 18-year-olds … you’ll learn an amazing technology called PowerPoint … and you’ll earn your degree while managing Galleria Antiques, where you ran a good business for 37 years.
Meet Joyce. Joyce Lowenstein. Georgia State’s absolutely, unquestionably, undeniably finest 90-year-old undergraduate.
Scott Morris couldn’t believe his eyes.
An elegant lady in a khaki suit sat across from him in his History of Interior Design class. She sported pink Ray Bans. She wore rainbow tennis shoes. Her hair gleamed in an immaculate bun.
“Okay, first off, Joyce can dress!” says Morris, who finished up his master’s degree in heritage preservation last semester. “She has style all day!
“I knew the moment we met that Joyce Lowenstein and I were going to be great friends. We just really hit it off. She wasn’t shy about asking me questions about the lecture, and I recognized how intelligent and really just how cool she is.
“Joyce is pretty incredible. I can’t imagine anyone wouldn’t want to be friends with her.”
Morris, age 35, surprised Lowenstein, too.
“I forgot how young everybody is when they go to school,” she says.
Forgive Lowenstein for forgetting, even with a memory she calls “photographic.” Her first college try came during World War II when she attended the University of Wisconsin for three semesters. The few men left on campus wore uniforms. She lived in a fraternity house, all the brothers off to fight in The Good War. Joyce braved snow and sun to make classes. But something felt more important to her then than a college degree.
Joyce loved a soldier, a young man navigating bombers over Italy. She wanted to write him letters more than she wanted to write essays and term papers. So she left school and joined her mother in New York City.
“I thought I loved him,” she says. “I wanted to be there when he came back.”
Her beau made it home, a lucky man. He married Joyce in 1946. The marriage lasted 14 years, a time when Joyce took to New York life. She designed gift items for small boutiques in the 1950s, then opened an antique shop and did interior design in the 1960s.
“I love the antique business,” she says. “A partner and I traveled all over New England with a U-Haul trailer buying things. Pickers would bring items by our shop. It was such a fun business.”
She resurrected that career in Atlanta when she moved here with Larry. First alone, then with a business partner named Barbara Domir, Lowenstein sold collectibles wholesale in a city that just wouldn’t stop growing. Atlanta welcomed a thousand new families a week during the 1990s, good years for Galleria Antiques, especially with many customers in ritzy Buckhead. Lowenstein shopped at least twice a year in Europe, and sometimes she made as many as four buying trips. She saw Buenos Aires, Parma, Budapest, Paris, London, Glasgow and Brussels. She developed an eye for fine things, especially fine art.
Years passed. Her beloved husband died in 2006. (“Larry was the best,” she reminisces.) The antiques business changed, sales and margins eroded by the Internet and changing consumer tastes. Lowenstein decided it was time for reinvention.
She also had unfinished business. After eight decades of life, love and lessons, she boomeranged back to college. In 2012, age 86, Lowenstein enrolled at Georgia State. She attends free under GSU-62, a university tuition waver program for seniors.
“I always felt I started things and didn’t finish,” she says simply.
Lowenstein’s not skylarking — the art history degree she pursues means serious business.
“I want to work my next 10 years as an art appraiser,” she says. “After I get my degree, I’ll still have to take three more certificate courses to be fully qualified.”
She’s always loved art. Lowenstein lives across the street from Atlanta’s High Museum, where she browses. She even paints her own canvases.
“I’m not a very good painter,” she says, “but I like to do it.”
A David Hockney work hangs in her home, bought on time the way some people buy a car.
“In 1961,” she says, “my sister gave me a surprise gift, a trip to museums in Europe. In Florence, we went to the Uffizi Gallery. I made her go back two more times, even though it wasn’t on our itinerary. I just couldn’t get enough.”
Lowenstein bought and sold fine art throughout her long career in antiques and interior design. Those experiences counted for something when she applied at Georgia State.
“Joyce was at the forefront of the developing interior design industry at mid-century in New York City,” says Maria Gindhart, associate dean of Georgia State’s Ernest G. Welch School of Art and Design.
“Due to her extensive interior design experience, Joyce was awarded six upper-level interior design credits that count toward her art history degree.”
Appraisal now seems a natural calling, and Lowenstein clearly has instincts and taste.
Maryellen Higginbotham taught her in the History of Interior Design I class in summer 2016 (the same class where Morris met Joyce). The course work included readings, lectures, class projects and field visits, one to the historic 1906 Zuber-Jarrell House in East Atlanta.
“Joyce excelled,” says Higginbotham. “When I think of her, I see sunshine, love of life and others, knowledge, determination, poetry, inspiration, and most of all, joy.”
Higginbotham found all these elements in a remarkable conclusion of a paper Lowenstein wrote for a wallpaper analysis project:
The initial work of tracing down paper and paint not readily seen was an eyeopener to me. I quickly learned from our professor where to look for it and where it hides, sometimes around trim and mouldings; behind door surrounds and radiators; under discovered paper; under trim and chair rails; and behind electric boxes and light switches.
All these findings and their analyses have the power to read like one’s private diary, revealing personal (self and family) and non-personal (socio-economic) changes and happenings taking place at that particular time. It all combines to form an historic background while telling an informative story. This was a valuable learning experience in finding history in one’s wall.
“In class,” says Morris, “there were plenty of times where the professor turned to Joyce for answers. That was always cool. Joyce is whip-smart. She’s a wealth of knowledge, and it was great to hear her contributions to our lectures.”
Gindhart finds great value in the diversity senior students add to the classroom.
“They bring amazing life experience and a different point of view,” Gindhart says. “I think Joyce feeds off the enthusiasm and energy of the younger students, and they learn from her because she has lived such a long, full life and traveled and seen much of the art under discussion.”
Lowenstein, in fact, unknowingly represents a very special legacy of the Ernest G. Welch School of Art and Design.
“Ernest G. Welch enrolled at Georgia State in his late 80s,” says Gindhart. “He received a bachelor’s degree in photography in 1999 at the age of 93. He is truly an example of a lifelong love of learning, and Joyce embodies this as well.”
When you’re age 90, not much is a piece of cake. Not even sleep.
Lowenstein regularly works past midnight. She writes out her class papers in longhand (she never learned to type), and her trusty sidekick Barbara Domir taps the sentences into a computer next day.
“She really suffers that,” Lowenstein says, “because my handwriting’s not that great. Besides, who knew art history would demand so many papers?”
“Joyce is a perfectionist,” says Domir. “She wants to do well in her classes, not just to audit them. She wants the grades! She’s competitive, but only with herself.”
Lowenstein remembers her first test after returning to college. She sat in an auditorium with a hundred students. Research assistants passed out test questions on one white sheet, then provided a second sheet with bubble charts for students to mark answers, SAT-style, by blacking in options with a pencil.
Fifteen minutes in, Lowenstein turned to a classmate. What are you doing? she asked. You have to fill in the bubble to mark the correct answer! came the whispered explanation.
Lowenstein stared. She’d written out her answers — in longhand, essay-style — on the questionnaire page. Newly educated on multiple choice exams, she scrambled to fill out her test like the other students.
Once she required a walker for a few days. Morris offered her a ride home. A gentleman, he went to her passenger door to help her get out.
“I don’t need help,” Lowenstein protested. “I’m only 90!”
Normally, she drives a gray 2001 Lexus. It has no back-up lights. She noses into a handicapped parking place in Lot E, then drags a roller bag full of books to class.
Like any student, she kvetches. Too much homework! I don’t have time to watch TV! I can’t read books I want to read! Textbooks are too expensive!
Now and then, she hits speedbumps. She has trouble reading the print on computer screens. She prefers working on paper anyway, so she takes every assignment to a printer, has it enlarged, then underlines with a pen, scribbling notes in margins. (She bought a used book once with pages that had Day-Glo highlighted sections. “I took that back,” she says. “It was disturbing.”) Lowenstein gets nervous before tests. (“I always feel like I’m not going to do well.”) Still, her grades have met her very high expectations … so far.
There’s one Mt. Everest still to climb — mathematics. “You have to pass this math test to get a degree in the state of Georgia,” she sighs. “I find it very difficult to get my mind around math I haven’t seen in 75 years.”
The test is a bear. Pass-fail. Seven different subjects. Lowenstein has a math tutor twice a week, but she thinks it might take more.
“A man in my building graduated two years ago,” she says. “He got his degree at age 85. To pass his math test, he took four months off to study and didn’t do anything else. He had a tutor several times a week. I’m thinking I might need to do something like that.
“Whatever it takes, I’ll make it. I’m going to make it.”
Her determination, in this 10th decade of life, seems thoroughly modern.
“You know, there weren’t many opportunities in my day for women,” she says. “A girl wasn’t allowed to move to another town and take an apartment and go to work unless she was living with a relative.
“Also, you didn’t have this digital environment, the Internet and all these different subjects open to you. I look at school email, and every day I see two or three opportunities, an internship here, an internship there. None of this was available when I started college the first time. So you can imagine what a great experience this is.”
Lowenstein loves — loves — her Georgia State classes.
“I could name every professor I’ve had, and I’d want to take each one again and again,” she says. “I may have had one or two who were hard to understand — one had quite an accent — but they were excellent teachers. I learned something every class.”
The lines in her palm on the fateful night she met Larry Lowenstein might also have predicted this: You’ll get your bachelor’s degree in 2018. You’ll pick up your art appraiser’s certifications after that. You’ll evaluate beautiful works. You’ll even take that trip to Japan you’ve put off all your life.
Maybe the sweetest prognostication of them all, though, will happen graduation day.
“All my grandchildren are coming down for my graduation,” Joyce Lowenstein says with emotion in her voice. “They’re very proud of me. I just wish my parents could see me in college and graduating.”