A Bachelor's in Inspiration

April 29, 2011

Kay Mullally (Class of 2011HH)
Photo by Laura J. Cole

In 1954, you either went to college at 18 or you didn’t go at all. Raised by parents who didn’t believe in higher education, Kay Mullally (Class of 2011HH) wound up foregoing the university experience and instead fell in love with a Marine officer, got married and had a family. In the world of officers’ wives, the thought of going back to school to get a higher education was simply unheard of. Forty-one years after graduating high school — and after supporting her five children through college — she decided it was her time. At 58 years old, with her husband’s strong encouragement, she enrolled in the Hamilton Holt School, and embarked on a journey that many of her peers deemed ill-advised.

“My friends thought I was crazy,” she says. “They were convinced I wouldn’t be able to handle the coursework and felt that college was reserved for the young. Unfortunately, they had bought into the stereotypes of what people our age could and couldn’t do, but I didn’t feel that way at all.”

Her family, however, was very supportive, and not surprised by her decision. “My mother has never let fear hold her back,” says Mary Franceschini, Mullally’s daughter. “We knew from her fierce conviction about all of us getting our degrees just how important education was to her.”

On her first day of class, Mullally received phone calls from every one of her children, who all asked what she was wearing. It turns out they wanted to make sure she dressed fashionably. When she began receiving grades, they became her toughest critics, suggesting that if she could get a “B+,” she could certainly work a little harder and get an “A.” “Everything came full circle,” Mullally recalls. “It was fun watching them push me to do better the way I had with them.”

After excelling in her English 101 class, she quickly realized she loved to write. In the ensuing 16 years, she found her place in the English department, where she flourished as a student and worked in the Writing Center. She was tapped as a member of the English Honor Society and will graduate summa cum laude on Saturday, May 7, with her bachelor’s degree in English with a minor in creative writing.

“Not only was she an excellent student on a purely academic level, she also made her classmates better by being supportive,” said Professor of English Maurice “Socky” O’Sullivan. “A class full of Kays would be wonderful, except it wouldn’t leave much work for us as teachers.”

Philip Deaver, writer in residence and associate professor of creative writing, remembers Mullally as being a cross between ambitious and generous. “She brought her experience to the classroom, without attempting to pull rank, but only to be straightforward about who she was,” he says. “Kay was a force because she mixed with other students—happily—and helped set a good example.”

It took some time to matriculate, but that’s the way Mullally planned it. “During my first year of school, my granddaughter was born, and people would ask me how long it was going to take for me to graduate,” she remembers. “I told them I’d graduate when my granddaughter was old enough to drive me to graduation, and 16 years later, that’s what she’s going to do.”

As a 74-year-old fresh out of college, Mullally looks back with great fondness on her experience. “I enjoyed being in an academic environment,” she says. “The professors were incredible, and nobody ever treated me like I was their mother. I’ve met people at Rollins who will be my friends for the rest of my life.”

Mullally plans on using what she learned at Rollins to help younger students develop their writing skills and to teach writing workshops for seniors. “Don’t underestimate what you’re capable of doing, and don’t dismiss what might be out there for you to discover and love,” she stresses to her peers. “You can do whatever you set your mind to, regardless of your age.”

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