Never Too Late: Berry’s Oldest Valedictorian

Jessie Goodson, Campus Carrier features editor

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Jeanne Cahill first enrolled at Berry in 1949. Fifty-eight years later at the age of 74, she graduated at the top of her class.

It’s not very often that you see non-traditional students at Berry. We only have about 2,200 students enrolled here, so students in these situations tend to stand out. 

When I was given the opportunity to write about an older person taking classes here, I was immediately intrigued. My problem was that I didn’t know where to look, as I hadn’t ever been in a class with anyone but millennials. Then someone told me about Jeanne Cahill. 

I found Cahill on Facebook, and she was more than happy to speak with me. All I knew about her was that she went to Berry as an adult. I soon learned that Cahill was from my hometown of Alma, Ga. 

Alma is a very small town in southeast Georgia with a population of 3,500 people. It’s located in Bacon County, which has a total population of 11,000. Compare that to the Rome population of 36,000 and it’s amazing that she and I connected. Even better than that, I have known her sister-in-law Jeanne Taylor, who lives in Alma, for most of my life. 

Our connection to Alma isn’t the only thing that’s interesting about Cahill; her entire story is intriguing. Cahill and I went to the same small high school in Bacon County. She graduated in 1949 at age 16. After high school, she moved to Rome to go to Berry College as a home economics major. She attended Berry from 1949 to 1951. 

After going to college for two years, Cahill decided to move to Atlanta at age 18 to be with friends. She had plans to complete her education there, but got busy and never got around to it. In the 1950s, there was a lot of pressure on women to get married and have kids as soon as possible. Young women coming out of high school were encouraged to put family first before receiving a higher education and Cahill ended up doing just that.

“If I had had a different attitude coming out of high school, my life would have been very different,” Cahill said. 

Cahill and her husband started a business supplying high-end exercise equipment for homes in 1982. They managed this business for 12 years before a larger company in Texas bought it out in 1994. 

While juggling their family business and being a stay-at-home mother, Cahill was heavily concerned with helping others and making a difference. While in Atlanta, Cahill served on the scholarship committee for HOPE in Georgia for 12 years and was a strong advocate for womens’ rights. She also worked with the Epilepsy Foundation and Jimmy Carter’s White House Conference of Families. 

“I got more out of it than I gave,” Cahill said. 

Three kids, a happy marriage and a successful business career later, Cahill ended up back in Rome. She then decided she had enough time to go back to school and finish what she started. 

“When we ended up in Rome, I thought, ‘I need to finish my college education,’” Cahill said.

Cahill re-enrolled at Berry in 2005 at age 72. The school was able to find her records from her first two years there from 1949-1951 and all of her credits transferred. Cahill decided to major in English this time. She has a passion for reading and writing, and wanted to further pursue that. 

Cahill graduated from Berry as valedictorian of the class of 2007 when she was 74 years old. She received a degree in English and had been involved in writing clubs and groups on campus. During her time at Berry, she said that all of the students were very welcoming to her and often invited her to get involved in school activities and programs. 

One thing that Cahill noticed when she went back to school as an experienced adult was the difference in the students. It may have been the fact that her high school was so small, but the curriculum was very different than what students learn now. 

“High schools nowadays are better preparing students for college,” Cahill said.

All of Cahill’s children were already out of school by the time she went back to Berry. She now has one daughter in Atlanta, one son in New York State and another son here in Rome. 

Since graduating from Berry, Cahill has become very involved in the Rome community. She is on the board for South Rome Redevelopment Corporation and the Rome Area Heritage Foundation. She is also active with St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Rome, the Democratic Party in Rome, the South Rome Community Association and the AIDS Resource Council of Rome. Cahill loves gardening and engaging with the community.

“If you’re going to take up space on this earth, you’ve got to give something back,” Cahill said.

Cahill has taken another writing course at Berry since graduating and stays involved with the community. Her great neice, Sage Davis, is currently enrolled here. Cahill has also written various papers and essays regarding women’s rights that are available through Georgia State University. 

I had a wonderful experience speaking with Cahill and hearing about her life. I think we all have something to learn from her; it’s never too late to finish something and anyone can make a difference by just reaching out in your very own community. 

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