HAVERHILL - Thousands of graduating students will stride proudly across stages this commencement season. Few will have taken as long as Pat Lundin did to get there: 45 years.
She graduated from Northern Essex Community College with an associate’s degree in general studies - and high honors - on Saturday, having taken her first course in 1967.
In between came jobs and kids and illnesses and layoffs and lots of late nights. She mastered algebra and Edgar Allan Poe in the brief respites from a life of grown-up responsibilities.
There wasn’t the money for college when Lundin graduated from Pentucket High, in Merrimac, in 1966. Like many girls in her class, she was recruited by New England Telephone to work as an operator, and that was as good a bet as she ever expected. But she wanted to keep learning. Her father gave her the $111 to take one night course. It was called finite math, and Lundin can’t remember much about it, except that she barely survived. And that she wanted to keep going.
“I remember when I was growing up, hearing [my father] say, ‘If you’re going to start something, finish it,’ ’’ she recalled on Thursday afternoon, sitting on a sunny plaza on campus.
Life accelerated rapidly after that, as it did for many young women in those days: She got married, had one kid, then another. Not in the plan was the massive coronary her husband, Doug, suffered at 27. He survived, but couldn’t do his old shipping job any more. Lundin worked while he went to college to retrain.
Through it all, she never gave up on her dream. As soon as the tiniest window of time opened, she returned to Northern Essex, hoping to become a teacher. But then, even though doctors told her it couldn’t happen, she was pregnant again. That was it for a while, as her life was consumed with softball games, dance classes, wrestling meets, and full-time work.
By 1997, the kids were out in the world, or on their way. Lundin leapt back into her studies, taking a course or two a semester. Like so many community college students, she did it the hard way.
Almost half of the 7,000 students at Northern Essex are first-generation college students. Three in 10 work more than 30 hours a week. Not for them the languid days on the quad, leisurely discussions of philosophy or cafeteria fare.
Lundin hadn’t ever taken a walk around campus until a couple of weeks ago. No time. “It’s so big,’’ she said after her inaugural stroll.
Her family was as invested in Lundin’s education as she was. She was laid off twice, and her husband worked extra jobs to make sure she had tuition money. Vertigo left her unable to drive for six weeks, and her daughter took her to class, waiting outside for three hours. When she struggled in algebra, the class she dreaded and left for last, her son helped her get a B.
Which turns out to be a low grade for Lundin. A member of two national honor societies, she has been inundated with invitations from four-year colleges. “They say, ‘Come see our dorms! We have this great athletic program!’ ’’ she laughed. “They have no idea I’m 64.’’
Sitting with her, you find yourself wondering what might have been, if this woman, with her superhuman determination, had been born later, or in circumstances where college was a given. But Lundin isn’t troubled by such thoughts. “I’m one that thinks . . . there’s a reason you go a certain path.’’
On Saturday, that path led to a huge white tent in Haverhill, where Lundin was lauded by Lane Glenn, college president, as an example of everything community colleges stand for. Claire and Joe Bunker, both 82, watched from their wheelchairs as their daughter Pat climbed four stairs to finish something she started so long ago.
Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org