Back to school


Borough woman, 80, works toward her degree

Charlotte Butler sits at her computer where she's been taking online courses at Post University. The 80-year-old Naugatuck resident hopes by going back to school, she will inspire her sons to get their college degrees. –RA ARCHIVE
Charlotte Butler sits at her computer where she’s been taking online courses at Post University. The 80-year-old Naugatuck resident hopes by going back to school, she will inspire her sons to get their college degrees. –RA ARCHIVE

NAUGATUCK — While her peers collected Social Security, Charlotte Butler enrolled an adopted son in kindergarten.

Now, at 80, Butler crams for exams and squeezes reading assignments around church meetings.

Last month, the great-grandmother from Naugatuck decided it was high time to get that college degree she never finished. She marched into the admissions office at Post University in Waterbury. She signed up for online classes for a bachelor’s of science in human services.

Butler is the oldest student at Post, university officials say, and maybe their oldest ever. Age has never stopped Butler, a spry woman who talks fast and lends a helping hand even faster. At 61, as her peers enjoyed empty nests, she took in a foster child — and then a dozen more over the years. A seasoned mother, Butler knows a thing or two about setting examples.

She had hoped that going back to school would inspire her now 19-year-old adopted son, John Butler. But John dropped out of high school recently and moved to Myrtle Beach, S.C., to reunite with his birth mother. Initially heartbroken, Charlotte found solace in her studies.

“I was having a pity party. But now I have assignments I need to read. I might need to read them three times to get it, but I do it,” she said, running her long fingernails through feathered brown hair with red highlights. “This is a hobby to me, but I do want to get A’s.”

Besides, she has two other sons who never finished their degrees. No matter that they are nearing retirement age, she’d like to see their names inscribed on diplomas, too. But there’s one more “biggie” when it comes to her motivation for going back to school, Charlotte said.

“We all need to use our brains more,” she said. “After all these years, these courses are making me use my critical thinking skills.”

Plus, she likes to keep busy.

“I’m alone right now and I have every opportunity in the world. I get lonesome,” she said. “Most of my friends are gone now. What do you do in your old age — except clean?”

Now, the octogenarian freshman has an academic schedule to follow. Up early, the cyber student jumps on her stationary bike and rides while she watches her religious programs. She plunks herself in front of a computer with a touch screen and logs onto Post’s web site. The modern device appears out of place in her cape’s living room, where watercolor paintings and silk flowers hang on pastel-pink walls. A Bible rests on the glass coffee table and a fake Christmas tree in the dining room is decorated with Easter eggs and bunnies, soon to change to flags for Memorial Day.

A conversation with Butler is a whirlwind, from relaying proud news about a granddaughter inducted into the National Honor Society to sharing life-lasting advice from a boss 60 years ago. She enthusiastically chatters with anyone she meets, quick to apologize if she’s gobbling up too much of their time.

“She’s just full of pep and vigor and is the same as she was when she moved next door to me 27 years ago,” said Cherie Weiss, a friend and former neighbor. “She is going all the time, and I think it’s her great faith that carries her on. She is compassionate and understanding. I just don’t know where she gets all the patience she needed when she had a couple of foster kids at a time. After John left, I thought there would be a lull, but she just picked right up and carried on by going back to school.”

Her son, Bill Butler of Naugatuck, said “busy” is an understatement for his mother.

“She was the original ADD. From her, everyone else came,” he said. “And she’s in better shape than I am.”

Bill applauded her return to school for the simple reason that she is indulging herself for once.

“She’s always giving to everyone else,” he said. “Look inside her ‘fridge. I have to go shopping for her because she doesn’t even consider herself. Have you seen her car? It’s this old Ford I have fixed so many times. She won’t get a new one; that’s just the way she is.”

Still, Bill was surprised initially at her college plan.

“’What are you thinking?’ I asked, but the more I thought about it, the more I embraced it,” he said. “The worst part about getting old is sitting around. And I’ve already noticed a change in her. She’s more articulate.”

Although Charlotte is not pursuing a career, majoring in human services was not arbitrary. The professions one might go into with such a degree — counseling and social work, to name a few — align with her interests.

After all, social workers and counselors were there for her and John when they were navigating their relationship. Charlotte describes her life as full and happy, but acknowledges there have been struggles. She divorced twice. She worked a variety of jobs, from managing dental offices to making hair dryers to selling vitamins to bank-telling.

She was a secretary at the University of Bridgeport and took classes during her lunch hour. But she never had the time or money to keep up.

“It was a time when everyone wanted to keep up with the Joneses, I had to work,” Charlotte said. “My sons were always saying, ‘Oh Mom, we want a swimming pool’ or they wanted leather jackets.”

Born in her grandmother’s Bridgeport home, Charlotte grew up on a farm in Fairfield during the Great Depression. She married shortly after graduating high school and had two sons, eventually settling in Stratford. Charlotte was drawn to human services because it seemed like a field where “you could help someone,” she said, a trait she associates with her late mother and grandmother.

“My mom was very generous. She always had the coffee pot on,” Charlotte said. “That’s just the way we were brought up, to be very loving.”

But Charlotte didn’t always have romantic luck. After 27 years of marriage, she and her first husband divorced in the 1980s.

Around that time, Charlotte, who was raised Methodist, joined a Pentecostal church and bought her home in Naugatuck. Her mother and grandmother had both taken needy children into their homes, so it wasn’t a giant leap for Charlotte to try it herself. When she first held a 10-month-old named John in her arms, she fell hard.

“It was no different from as if he were my own,” Charlotte said.

She never planned to adopt, but it only seemed natural to do so when state social workers suggested she consider it.

“They said, ‘You’ve been his mother for five years and you love this little boy,’ and they were right,” Charlotte said.

She went on to foster 14 more kids, but never adopted any others. After getting her knee replaced in 2008 — the only medical problem she has had — Charlotte stopped fostering and concentrated exclusively on John. She also had married a widow, Lou, from her church choir. They divorced after about 10 years, but remained close friends. Lou, who was a father figure to John, died three years ago.

To John, Charlotte’s return to school made sense.

“She’s finally going to get the degree she always wanted, and not even for a job, just to say she did it. I thought it was strange at first, but then I said, ‘Go right ahead,’ and whenever I am home, I help her,” said John during a telephone interview from South Carolina. He said he plans to return this summer to get his G.E.D. and go to college — eventually.

Charlotte’s other son, Rob Butler, said he too is proud of his mother.

“When you get to this point in your life, most people are ready to close the book on certain things. … To go back to school is a beautiful thing,” said Rob, who lives in Kansas. “My mom went through some rough waters, but she always comes out of it very positive. She’s a highly motivated person and I hope I can manage half of what she’s doing when I’m 80.”