As Daisy Rittgers walked across the commencement stage in Lantz Arena at Eastern Illinois University, she was greeted with a standing ovation from her fellow classmates. The audience wasn’t amazed by Mrs. Rittgers’ strut across the stage, but her nearly seven-decade journey to get there.
Considered to be one of EIU’s oldest alumni and the oldest graduate, Mrs. Rittgers passed away this month at age 106 in Shelby Memorial Hospital. A Shelbyville native, she began her career at EIU in 1927, but didn’t walk across the stage till she was 88. “I am a slow learner,” said Mrs. Rittgers, laughing.
Before her passing, Mrs. Rittgers reminisced about her 69-year journey to earn her bachelor’s degree, her years as an Illinois educator and her constant thirst for knowledge.
The Early Days
Daisy Sands was born on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 28, 1907, in Westervelt, a small town in Shelby County; she graduated from Westervelt High School in 1927. After high school, she borrowed $175 and began her education at Eastern Illinois State Teachers College, determined to become a teacher and make a life for herself. “I lived off campus, and I worked a little to get by,” Mrs. Rittgers said.
She recalled the small, three-room apartment she lived in and vividly remembered her walk throughout the castle building, called the Normal School Building (known today as Old Main).
During her first year, Mrs. Rittgers met and chatted with some of the now iconic figures of campus including Burl Ives, who went on to achieve recognition as a folk singer/actor; Livingston Chester Lord, Eastern’s first president; and Florence McAfee, the Eastern’s first administrator for women’s physical education.
McAfee taught Mrs. Rittgers archery, while Ives became her laboratory partner – and often asked to copy her work. “Burl Ives was in my laboratory classes and he was too busy writing music and practicing football to worry too much about his studies,” she laughed, speaking of Ives affectionately.
Mrs. Rittgers remembered walking past Livingston C. Lord in the halls of Old Main but it wasn’t until the end of her first year that the two actually conversed. Mrs. Rittgers said she only needed to attend school for a year to qualify to take the teacher’s certification test, but she had to ask the president’s permission first.
“I had never been so scared,” she said, remembering her dread as she walked into Lord’s office. To her relief, Lord smiled and gave her the go-ahead, which gave Mrs. Rittgers the liberty to pursue her passion for teaching for the next four decades.
A Life Calling
After leaving Eastern, Mrs. Rittgers took over a one-room schoolhouse in Shelby County. Her classroom contained 45 students, ranging from first- to eighth-graders. The oldest students were only six years younger than herself. She was expected to teach all ages everything from math to English, and even served as the building’s janitor.
To get the job, the superintendent of schools asked Mrs. Rittgers to walk down the road, to see if she was “strong” enough for the job. “I stood up tall and strutted down that lane,” she recalled.
For the next 43 years, Mrs. Rittgers taught throughout Shelby County. She eventually retired in 1972. Although Mrs. Rittgers married her husband, Carl, when she was 25, the couple was unable to conceive.
“I could not have any children, so I believe God nudged me into teaching,” she said, referring to her passion for education.
As Mrs. Rittgers taught her students every year, she never stopped learning and continued her own education by taking classes through EIU and other colleges. Even when she retired in 1972, she satisfied her thirst for knowledge by reading vigorously every day. She also painted oil paintings and wrote poetry.
It was a family member who suggested Mrs. Rittgers might have enough credits to earn her Board of Governors Bachelor of Arts degree. The program is designed for non-traditional adult students with extensive work experience that is applied toward their degree completion.
So, after more than four decades of teaching, Mrs. Rittgers walked across the stage at Lantz, finishing a nearly seven-decade journey. Even then, though, her thirst for knowledge didn’t stop.
After graduation, Mrs. Rittgers continued her favorite pastimes of reading books, painting oil paintings and writing poetry. She continued to live in her own home in Shelbyville until just weeks before her death on June 18, 2014.
Mrs. Rittgers said she had been blessed with the opportunity to spend her life teaching and learning. When asked in February of this year what Mrs. Rittgers would do differently in her life, she responded with a resounding “nothing.”