SANTA CLARA -- Every day for weeks, Olive Chandler walked with a cane to the mailbox, riffling through health newsletters and bills, looking for the dream that had eluded her for most of her 93 years.
Finally it arrived in a white cardboard envelope. Inside, written in black script on heavy paper, was her college diploma from San Jose State -- more than 50 years late.
Backdated to Aug. 19, 1959, the diploma came thanks to the youngest of her five children, who understood her mother's lifelong regret, and a small group of tenacious administrators at San Jose State who pored through dog-eared course catalogs from the 1950s. Yes, they determined, Chandler had, in fact, earned her diploma decades ago, even though she'd been told again and again she was a few credits short.
The degree is in home economics, practical for its time, but one as dated as Chandler's faded recipe for French dressing potato salad that her family plans to serve Saturday at her graduation party.
Chandler, barely 5 feet tall with a childlike giggle, is a little embarrassed by all the attention. "Too much fuss has been made of it," she said in the living room of the ranch-style house she has lived in since she and her late husband bought it new in 1960.
But her children know better.
"She worked so hard to get it," said one of her daughters, Martha Marschner, 58, who lives with her mother. "She tried hard and there were so many obstacles."
"She would always say, 'I have 156 units and no college degree,' " well more than the 120 units usually required for an undergraduate degree, said her daughter, Donna Chandler, 55, who reached out to San Jose State in the spring on the eve of her mother's 93rd birthday.
Olive Chandler had even inquired in 1964, hoping to graduate alongside her eldest daughter who also earned a degree in home economics. But again, she was told she was missing a course. By then, life got in the way. This was a woman who, after working at the lawn mower repair shop all day, would make all her children's clothes, their bridesmaids dresses and wedding gowns. She baked and decorated elaborate cakes for every occasion.
"I could have got a job as a teacher and made life easier. But there's no use dwelling on that," she said. "You do what you have to do."
For her children, it was well past time to honor their mother's perseverance. They didn't want to get her hopes up, so Donna Chandler sneaked into her mother's bedroom in the spring and opened the fireproof lockbox near the nightstand. Inside, stacked with her children's birth certificates and family trust papers, was an ecru envelope with the transcripts from Compton City College in the 1930s, Santa Barbara State College in the 1940s, and what was then San Jose State College in the 1950s.
She wasn't sure whether her mother would qualify for the degree, but if not, she politely asked that the university write a nice letter acknowledging her mother's dedication to education.
Her request landed on the desk of Stephen Branz, associate dean for curriculum at San Jose State, who enlisted the help of Delia Chavez, a transfer credit adviser, and Lucy McProud, the head of the nutrition and food science department -- the closest equivalent these days to home economics. Over the course of six weeks, evaluating classes ranging from organic chemistry and household microbiology to home equipment and laundry and "cooking for two," they came to a conclusion.
"As we judged it, Olive had earned the degree. If I had been able back then I would have granted it," Branz said, adding that they used a common exception to count a few transferred units. "I'm really pleased about it. But we did this because she deserved this. These academic standards have to be held."
In an email to Donna Chandler, Branz wrote: "For all of us who worked on this, we extend our congratulations to your mother."
Family members relayed the good news to Olive Chandler and told her the diploma would be arriving in the mail within weeks.
Branz awards about a dozen backdated degrees a year, but 1959 is the oldest by far. Most tend to come from the 1970s and '80s.
The Chandler family invited the team from San Jose State to the graduation party. All five children -- two of whom have master's degrees and one who is a lawyer -- will be there, along with most of the grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They are preparing the same menu that their mother so often served for big family celebrations: summer squash casserole, Mrs. Creech's French dressing potato salad and Mom's carrot cake with walnut cream cheese frosting.
The diploma is already framed. The children have borrowed a graduation gown they hope their mother will wear for the party.
"It's getting blown all out of proportion," the new graduate said. "But I was really surprised. And I'm happy to have it."
Contact Julia Prodis Sulek at 408-278-3409.