At 97, Vicksburg woman becomes oldest-ever to graduate from University of Alabama

Published 9:00 am Saturday, March 2, 2019

By David Miller

Communication Specialist

Univ. of Alabama

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The early 1940s were a turbulent and uncertain time for Americans, as the strains of World War II required men and women to serve beyond their traditional roles and make extraordinary sacrifices.

In 1943, Frances Gammon, a first-generation college student from a farming family of 10 children in Fort Deposit, was nearing completion of her education degree at the University of Alabama. Her academic record was sterling: the former high school valedictorian was a Mortar Board honor society member and was among 27 UA students selected for “Who’s Who Among Students at American Universities and Colleges” that year.

She’d also met her husband, George, a football and track letterman, while attending UA.

The couple welcomed its first child, George, Jr., in 1944, while George, Sr., was awaiting deployment to Europe. George, Sr. initially was to deploy with his infantry tank battalion out of Camp Wheeler, Georgia, but while on standby orders, he transferred to the Army Air Corps, which extended his time in the United States and to see George, Jr. born.

Frances, just a quarter shy of completing her degree at UA, had withdrawn from school and moved with George, Sr., who, like many servicemen, faced an uncertain return from war.

She’d carry the disappointment of not being a UA graduate for nearly 75 years until December 2018, when a coordinated effort from her son, Joe, and various departments across UA’s campus would reveal a “Christmas miracle”: UAs New College LifeTrack program, a distance-ed program, reviewed Frances’ transcripts and determined that she’d accrued enough credits to earn a bachelor degree from UA. From there, Tim Dillard in the College of Arts & Sciences, determined she qualified for a bachelor’s degree in English, with minors in history and French.

Her family, including all five of her children, shared with her the news that she was a member of the December 2018 graduating class.

“Oh, how I wish George were still here to see this,” said Frances, who turned 97 in November and resides in Vicksburg. “And my sisters, who helped me attend; they would be so happy.

“I am so happy, so proud of my family, and so proud of the University of Alabama.”

No regrets

A college degree was nearly unattainable for much of the populace in the post-Depression era.

Frances’ family members were subsistence farmers and “very poor,” Joe said. “When high school was over, she had no expectations that she’d be able to go to college.”

But Frances had potential and a passion for learning that inspired others to make college a reality for her. Frances’ high school principal and his wife drove Frances to UA, where they explored degree options and secured campus jobs, ultimately convincing her family to allow her to attend.

For Frances, to have met and married George and been on the cusp of becoming the first college graduate in her family, leaving UA without reaching her “dream” didn’t weigh heavy given the gravity of the moment.

“I never regretted the decision to take care of my family first,” she said. “It was the right decision, the only option. In my mind, I thought it was the best way I could make sure Daddy (George, Sr.) would come home safely, and do my part to support him and help us win the war.”

George, Sr. would return home after flying B-17s in over 30 bombing missions in Europe. One of the planes was named the “Alabama Gal,” named for Frances. The couple would complete their family with five children, each of whom would become college graduates.

Old friends, helping hands

Frances made childcare arrangements and re-enrolled at UA while George, Sr. was at war, but he returned to the United States before she could finish, and Frances again chose to withdraw to support her family while George, Sr. completed his military contract.

Frances would go on to complete all but two of her remaining classes through correspondence; the final two courses required on-campus attendance and weren’t available in the same semesters, Joe said. Her studies would remain unfinished until a recent conversation with Ken Gaddy, director of the Paul W. Bryant Museum.

Gaddy was familiar with the Gammon family after George, Sr. was featured in a 2010 celebration of former UA athletes that served in World War II. After catching up with the Gammon family, Gaddy contacted the registrar for the College of Arts & Sciences to explore options to help Frances graduate. Along with New College, the College of Arts & Sciences determined that, while Frances fell short of completing requirements for teacher certification, she had the required 120-plus credit hours to earn a BA in English.

“She always talked about how much she loved learning, how much she loved the university, and the times spent there being the happiest days of her life,” Joe said. “She’s been a lifelong learner and has set an example for all of us … it’s brought us to tears. We’re so happy for her to be able to accomplish this.”