This month, Alice Thomas, 79, will don her cap and gown and become the oldest University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law graduate in the Sacramento, Calif., institution’s 86-year history. Why would a septuagenarian tackle torts, property and constitutional law alongside classmates often one-third her age?
“There seems to be a trend in the media to not even mention seniors or, if they do, portray us all as doddering old fools,” Thomas says with typical bluntness. “Part of my motivation to complete a legal education was to try and prove this is not necessarily true.”
She was no slacker, says Gail Maiorana, 48, who graduated from McGeorge in 2007. “She wanted to know every little detail of every little rule of the law,” observes Maiorana, who took a criminal law class with Thomas.
Law students typically bunch into study groups that meet outside class, but Thomas never joined one. “But she made it through anyway,” Maiorana says. “She did make friends with quite a few of the professors and staff.”
Thomas’ predilection for breaking through stereotypes started in Phoenix, Ariz., where she was born to a college-educated, homemaker mother and a machinist father.
Informed by her father at age 14 that women were put on earth primarily to be “baby factories,” Thomas told him that was “a bunch of you-know-what, and very promptly got slapped pretty hard,” she recalls.
She left home at 16, and in 1949 entered a marriage that lasted for “16 miserable years” and produced no children.
Freshly divorced in the mid-1960s and still keen on higher education, Thomas, who by then resided in California, started taking junior college classes in Costa Mesa. To support herself, she got a secretarial job with a local construction company.
“I really wanted to be a builder, but in the days of Leave It to Beaver, that was unthinkable for a woman,” Thomas says. Still, she was promoted to controller, and then oversaw purchasing and project management for the firm, making her one of the few women in the construction business to do so.
Not long after earning a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of California, Riverside, Thomas met “the love of my life and soul mate” in 1978. “He was educated, intelligent, cultured and utterly charming,” she says of her Prince Charming, who was also in real estate development.
When California’s market tanked in the early 1990s, they moved to Las Vegas, where Thomas became a paralegal. She eventually decided to go to law school and was accepted into the McGeorge School of Law.
“It was more intellectually challenging than I anticipated,” she says of her law classes. “I liked property, I liked environmental law and I liked elder law.”
Up for the challenge
Along with the rigors of law school, Thomas also was the caregiver for her partner, who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. His death in 2005, along with the time Thomas devoted to his care and her 20 hours a week spent working in McGeorge’s free legal clinic, pushed her completion date from May 2006 to December 2009. She will participate in the school’s May 15 commencement ceremony.
These days she’s diligently cramming for the California bar, while assisting Reno, Nev., attorney Keith Tierney, for whom she once worked as a paralegal. Their goal is to create a three-lawyer, elder-law firm that practices in Nevada and California.
Thomas looks forward to it, “because I feel quite strongly that seniors are being swept under the bus,” she says. “If seniors don’t get a little more militant and start raising hell, they’re going to stay under the bus!”
Blair S. Walker is a writer in Miami.