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Degree at last: Milligan student gets diploma after 70 years

Rex Barber • Jun 5, 2012 at 10:27 PM

MILLIGAN COLLEGE –– How do you describe finally getting your college degree after nearly 70 years? Ninety-one year old Eileen Purcell Williams calls it “awesome.”

Williams began her studies at Milligan College in 1938 as a pre-medicine major. She lacked only one requirement to graduate; taking medical technology training at Knoxville General Hospital.

While in Knoxville, though, she got double pneumonia and had a lengthy recovery that prevented her from completing her final requirement. That was 1941, the year America entered World War II.

She got married in 1943 to Nathaniel Taylor Williams Jr., a Milligan alumnus who was preparing to leave for military service in the war. Williams worked as a chemist for 3 1/2 years while her husband served in the Pacific Theater of Operations during WWII.

After the war, she traveled the world with her husband, who was in the Navy.

“I was moving around from Turkey to Taiwan to Guam, a lot of places all over the world,” she said.

None of those places she went had the continuing education classes she would need to complete her degree, so she never finished.

“One of the few regrets I had in my life was I didn’t actually receive a degree,” Williams said in an interview on the campus of Milligan Tuesday afternoon.

At this year’s Milligan commencement exercises in May, school President Bill Greer announced Williams would indeed receive an honorary bachelor’s of science degree from Milligan. She was presented with it Tuesday, which was also her 91st birthday.

Williams said she was extremely honored for the degree and jokingly asked if this meant she had to go to work now.

Williams lives in Brandon, Fla., and made the trip by plane to Tennessee specifically to get her diploma Tuesday.

“The stewardess found out why I was coming on this trip and announced it to the whole plane, and they all stood up and clapped and made me feel so wonderful,” Williams said.

Williams said she pursued pre-medicine because she wanted to do something other than teach. Her plan was to learn how to operate medical equipment in clinics or hospitals.

“That just seemed like something that I was very interested in,” Williams said.

Williams said she had not been on the campus of Milligan since probably the early 1950s. She said she had many wonderful memories of her time as student.

Asked if the campus had changed much, she said, “Oh, wow. I can’t believe how much has changed, just driving around and looking at all the new buildings and the beautiful landscaping and everything that’s been done.”

Williams plans to place her degree on the wall at home beside all her husband’s awards.

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