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School’s oldest graduate reflects on a life of teaching and service

Brian Benson
School’s oldest graduate reflects on a life of teaching and service
Marie Rudd Thomas COURTESY PHOTO

More than 80 years after graduating from Bridgewater State University, lessons she learned as an undergraduate still shape Marie Rudd Thomas’ life.

“The foundation of teaching and helping and giving stayed with me,” the member of the class of 1938 said.

As BSU’s oldest living graduate, Thomas, 103, was honored with a cane that’s kept on display in the Jones Alumni House. The Class of 1962 started the tradition, basing it on Boston Post canes that recognize the oldest residents in New England communities.

Growing up in Boston, Thomas could have attended Boston Teachers College for free and, provided she succeeded academically, taught in Boston. But she wanted to broaden her horizons.

“I lived in the South End, and Boston Teachers College was on Huntington Avenue,” she said. “To me it was the same as going to high school. I wanted some feeling of going to college.”

So, every morning Thomas boarded a streetcar, transferred to the elevated line at Washington Street, and took a train from South Station to Bridgewater. What was then called Bridgewater State Teachers College (BTC) awaited students after an uphill walk.

“We had a camaraderie because we were all from working-class backgrounds,” she said. “We couldn’t afford a big college, but we did have the college experience.”

Thomas joined the Women’s Athletic Association and played basketball and badminton. She worked in the library and accompanied the glee club on piano. She often ate lunch quickly to leave time for dancing in the gymnasium.

She completed her student teaching in Braintree, where she stood out as a Black educator but says she was never treated poorly.

After graduating, she taught in a Black elementary school in Wake Forest, North Carolina. Despite segregation, Thomas and her colleagues gave students the best education possible, she said, including offering programs such as glee club, for which she again played the piano. Teachers highlighted Black people who overcame disadvantaged backgrounds to succeed.

“We try to keep our school plant and grounds spotlessly clean and well-tended so that when our children pass the white school on the other side of the tracks, a feeling of pride rather than disgust will envelop them when they know their own building is just as fine,” Thomas wrote in a letter excerpted in the Campus Comment in 1940.

When the school sought to establish a library, Thomas turned to her connections at Bridgewater. The college community responded, donating almost 200 pounds of books.

Thomas taught in North Carolina for two years before returning to Massachusetts to start a family. She inspired a love of learning in her two children and five grandchildren, setting the expectation that they would go to college and sparking their interest in education careers.

She credits her longevity to “God’s plan,” but isn’t counting the years.

“I don’t put a number on anything,” she said. “My health has been good and my mind still functions.”

Now living in a senior community, Thomas loves reading and participates in the knitting club. She even creates scarves and blankets for people who are hospitalized, carrying on her lifelong commitment to ministering to others.

At Bridgewater, she left an indelible impression on her classmates.

“Those of us who were here before she graduated are proud to have known her,” a student wrote in the Comment. “Those who know her only by reputation are proud to know that BTC is her alma mater.”

Brian Benson is a staff writer with Bridgewater State University’s office of Marketing and Communications

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