At 79, Northeast Philly woman completes 'hell or high water' dream

Posted: May 06, 2013

BERNICE APPEL, of Northeast Philadelphia, was already well into her 70s when she told her two grown daughters, "Come hell or high water, I'm going to get my college degree before I'm 80."

Today, less than six months shy of her 80th birthday - "Oct. 30, mischief night!" she said, laughing - the graduating granny dons cap and gown, and proudly gets her associate degree in general studies from Community College of Philadelphia.

As Sir Paul McCartney would put it, if he were the commencement singer, it's been a long and winding road.

During recent years, Appel had both knees replaced, carpal tunnel syndrome in both hands, cataract surgery in both eyes and operations to transplant a tendon in her left hand and to repair a torn rotator cuff in her left shoulder.

"I was driving in Maryland when I pulled into a rest stop, stepped down off a curb and never made it down with my other foot," she said. "I braced my fall with my left hand. In the hospital, this doctor was pulling my left arm up and down to see what was wrong. My daughter said, 'You're hurting my mother.' The doctor said, 'She has nothing broken.' "

But when Appel, feeling extreme pain, sought a second opinion at Lankenau Medical Center, the rotator-cuff tear was discovered and repaired. As with all her surgeries, recovery took a long time.

But that didn't stop Appel - who has three granddaughters - from pursuing her "hell or high water" vow.

Her hunger for higher education began in 1978, when Appel worked at Mount Sinai Hospital in South Philly and took a medical-records certification course at Temple University paid for by her union. But she found no job openings afterward.

So Appel spent 15 years at Mount Sinai, advancing from lab secretary to financial counselor, then held another financial counseling job until 2002. But as a working mother with three children, she never had the time or the money to get a college education.

She took care of her husband, who suffered from Alzheimer's disease, until he died in November 2002.

That's when she "looked just down the street from home" at CCP's Northeast Regional Center, yearning to finally complete her life journey toward a college degree.

Appel could only afford to take CCP's senior-citizen offer of one tuition-free course per semester, making a degree seem impossibly far away.

But to her surprise and delight, her CCP counselor found that Appel had 15 credits from her Temple University days, so she needed only nine more.

Her "hell or high water" battle cry will definitely be the theme of today's graduation after-party with son Bob and daughters Robin and Diane at Adelphia Restaurant in Deptford, N.J.

Slinky, the dachshund that Appel adopted recently from a rescue kennel, will remain home in Northeast Philly's Byberry section.

Not surprisingly, Appel has big postgraduation plans.

"Dr. Harvey Lefton, my gastroenterologist, was teasing me," she said. "He told me, 'Why don't you tell your family doctor that after you get your bachelor's degree, you plan to apply to medical school?' "

Appel laughed and said, "I told Dr. Lefton, 'Are you out of your mind? I'd be 105 by the time I graduated. Who would be my patient?' "

Appel said she hopes today's graduation is not the end of her education. She's already researching area colleges, hoping to find one that offers affordable courses to senior citizens.

"I'd like to get my bachelor's degree if God gives me the time," she said. "It's all up to the man upstairs."


On Twitter: @DanGeringer

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