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91-year-old finds a sense of belonging at college

HACKENSACK, N.J. – Harold Dinzes may be the oldest college kid in New Jersey and is surely one of the most gung-ho.

At 91, Dinzes is a history major at Montclair State University at a time when the percentage of college students age 65 and older has plummeted in New Jersey.

Four days a week, the Passaic, N.J., man is on campus wearing jeans and a backpack like any other student, drawn by the lure of academics and a conviction that he has discovered a place where he finally belongs. He has even asked the administration if he can be buried at the school.

As he makes his way across campus, Dinzes is greeted by professors, secretaries and classmates who wave and holler, “Hi Harold!” At the academic advising office, the counselors welcome him with hugs and pecks on the cheek. At the library, mature librarians and young interns whisper with him about gems in the stacks. At the student cafe, pals from class plop down beside him to discuss assignments.

“These kids,” he says, referring to everyone on campus under 80, “make me feel like a million bucks.”

Around him, the coeds who aren’t smooching are typing on laptops, listening to iPods or chatting on cellphones – all contraptions that seem to Dinzes like futuristic wizardry. Dinzes doesn’t even have a typewriter. His teachers allow him to write his assignments by hand, which he does in three drafts: one in chicken scratch to get his ideas down, a second to pull it together and a third to perfect his penmanship.

There are, of course, other reminders of his age. On his first day at school, he scoped out every bathroom on campus because the water pill he takes for his heart requires a quick response.

“I was so naive when I started here,” he says. “I asked a kid sitting next to me if I had to raise my hand when I had to go to the bathroom. No, the kid said, you can just go. I thought, Wow, it wasn’t like that when I went to high school.”

Even before Dinzes graduated from Passaic High in the 1930s, he dreamed of going to college but his family needed him to work. His parents could afford to send only one child to school and Dinzes’ sister was the brainier one. Their mother hocked all her jewelry to pay the tab.

In 1942, Dinzes was drafted, spending four years with the Army in the South Pacific. He yearned for books but the only book at the base – besides Army manuals, and he even read those – was a worn copy of Plato. He read it until it came apart in the jungle humidity.

When the war ended, Dinzes signed up as a reservist. But in 1950, with tensions rising in Korea, he was tapped again. His wife was four months’ pregnant with their first child. Dinzes served until 1953.

After his return, Dinzes worked with his father in a plumbing supply shop, which Dinzes eventually took over. His sons worked with him until he closed shop at age 84, trounced by the Home Depot down the street.

Unsure of what to do next, he applied for a job at the Barnes ‘ Noble in Clifton, N.J. Five times he was turned down, but he pestered them until they relented. When he’s not in class, he still works there.

At 88, he applied to Montclair State, where his granddaughter is in graduate school. His 83-year-old wife, Doreen, says he checked the mail every day to see if he had been accepted. When the letter finally arrived, he framed it.

He has taken 21 classes – mostly in history, anthropology, archeology and political science – about half the amount needed for graduation.

His wife says sometimes it’s wearing to live with a college boy.

“I have to be quiet in the morning when he’s sleeping or studying, and we don’t have any social life because he always says, `I have to go home and study,'” she says. “I thought when he retired he’d finally be around more, but he’s always busy with school. I had to take up canasta and mah-jongg to find something to do.”

Last Monday at the lecture hall for his general humanities course, Dinzes headed straight to the front row, the better to hear the professor. He put his cane and veterans hat on the table and laid out his textbook, his binder, his hearing aids, his pencils and highlighter and his three sets of eyeglasses – one for watching the teacher, one for checking his notes and one if the light gets too bright. He swiveled around and offered Life Savers to the two cute coeds sitting behind him, both of whom politely accepted.

Class that day was about how art in the late Roman Empire reflected divisions in society. Though Professor Senta German was animated, some students chatted and some dozed. Not Dinzes. He took notes, chuckled at her jokes and was the only student out of nearly 100 to answer when she asked a question.

When class ended, he repacked his things, making sure to refill his coat pockets with Life Savers so he didn’t have to fumble when he wanted to hand them out.

Most days, he gets to school hours early so he can nab the parking spot he wants. Then he heads to the library to read 20th century military history and figure out where he fits in. Or he pops in to see the academic advisers to bring them bagels and cream cheese and ask after their children. In turn, they tease him about how he’s in line, after Brad Pitt, as a potential boyfriend.

Back home, his wife says he talks incessantly about the professors he loves, the books he’s reading, the knowledge he’s absorbing.

Does she look forward to the day he graduates?

“Are you kidding? He says he’s going to be in college until 2099, and I won’t be here then.”

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