By Deb Silverthorn
Reading, ’riting, and ’rithmetic were always important to Janet Fein, but never more so than in the last six years, as she’s studied toward earning her bachelor’s degree. Never has there been more of an example of “better late than never” than this octogenarian, who will walk during University of Texas at Dallas’ commencement Wednesday, Dec. 19.
The 84-year-old sociology major and mother of David (Dena), Robert, Mitchell (Gail), Scott (Meryl) and Susan, of blessed memory, and the grandmother of Jonathan and Michael (Katia) Bittle, Adam (Kylee), Brooke, Joshua, Rachel and Zachary Fein, and Whitney (Blake) Silverthorn, is the second-to-last family member to graduate college.
“In my family, I’ve got a doctor, a speech therapist, a couple of artists, sales and marketing professionals, a nurse, a teacher and an engineer,” Fein said. “I’m excited to join them in getting my degree. I’ve worked hard and as proud as I am of them, I’m proud of me too.”
Born Janet Schwartz Oct. 16, 1934, Fein found herself uninterested at school, perhaps ahead of her classmates. She eventually skipped the eighth and 11th grades, and graduated from New York’s William Taft High School at age 16.
Fein went to work after high school as a secretary at a dress manufacturer. That’s where she met Howard, of blessed memory, the man who would be her husband of 35 years.
Once their children were born, Fein stayed home as the family followed Howard’s U.S. Army service to Fort Myers, Virginia; Miami; and Columbia, South Carolina. The family also lived in Maryland and Kentucky before Dallas became home in 1970. She reflects on a city where Belt Line Road was two lanes and “about as far north as most people traveled.” The Feins belonged to Congregation Tiferet Israel, then were among the founders of Temple Shalom.
Fein spent 12 years working at the Dallas Hilton Inn as a secretary, payroll clerk and, eventually, personnel director. Two years after work required a move to Buffalo, New York, Fein returned to Dallas, alone, wanting to be closer to her children and their growing families.
“We’d built a beautiful family, but it was time,” she said. “I came back to the kids, and I’ve never been sorry.”
Returning home, Fein earned her associate degree from Richland College in 1995, a journey begun years before.
“Mom’s been through a lot, and she’s always stuck by to finishing what is important to her,” said son Scott, recalling Fein riding DART with her walker and oxygen when her health required. “She still pursued it all and with lots of enthusiasm, and her family couldn’t be prouder of her.”
After returning to Dallas, Fein worked for the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas and then Texas Scottish Rite Hospital where she built a 20-year career — the first and most soothing face one met in the movement lab.
“I loved it because it wasn’t ‘work,’” Fein said. “They appreciated me and treated me very well. I saw many of our patients grow from youngsters to adulthood.”
Retiring in 2012, at 78, Fein believed it time to finish her degree. “Because I was over 65, I got free tuition. I picked sociology because the study of people and society was a perfect match,” Fein said.
“I learned about cultures, people and religions, and I learned to respect many I didn’t know about,” said Fein. “Even at 78, I realized I had a lot to learn.”
“Janet soaked up our class materials and lessons and shared her knowledge and wisdom with her fellow students, helping them see the importance of the knowledge of history and the lessons learned through the study of religion and society today,” said UTD Professor Bobby Alexander, who taught one of Fein’s favorite classes, Religion in Society, along with the Immigrants and Immigration in U.S. Society course she took.
“She showed them how to stick to the task of study,” Alexander said. “The best part of teaching Janet was her referring to historical events related to our discussions, bringing wisdom of her years and experience.”
UTD Sociology Program Head Richard Scotch supervised Fein during her last two semesters through independent studies. Emailing lessons and assignments, the two created a bond without ever meeting.
“We had many interesting interchanges, and I’m glad we could accommodate her,” said Scotch, for whom online programs are rare. Making an exception, he said she wrote thoughtful papers and asked great questions. “It was more than a pleasure to work with her. I admire the energy she brought and her absolutely incredible pursuit of education.”
Scotch recalled that during a recent State of the University speech, UTD President Richard C. Benson spoke of the breadth of this graduating class, spanning the ages from teenage to Fein.
Her family being the most important part of her life, it wasn’t lost on her that a recent midterm exam was on lifecycles. Clearly, she was alone in turning in a project with photos expressing family births, deaths, weddings and more.
“Lots of people say they’d like to go back to school — and they should,” said Fein, who lives on her own, proud of her independence. When she’s not studying or hugging her children, Fein has enjoyed making dolls and jewelry.
“I’ve enjoyed the reading and I’ve learned a lot. This has been very rewarding and it feels great to have completed a goal I’ve had for so long. Never leave anything unfinished.”
TJP contributor Deb Silverthorn’s son Blake is married to Janet Fein’s granddaughter Whitney.