NORTHAMPTON, Mass. -- Anne Martindell's quest for a diploma took several detours since the day in 1932 when she arrived for her freshman year at Smith College in a chauffer-driven car with her trunks packed by a French maid.
After a year, she was forced to trade her books for debutante balls because her father, a federal judge, feared she'd become too educated to find a husband.
"Even when I was at Smith the first time we didn't do much thinking on our own," said Martindell, 87, who returned to the women's college in western Massachusetts a few years ago. "It's something I've had to learn."
And learn she did.
The woman who has served as U.S. ambassador to New Zealand, New Jersey state senator and head of the U.S. Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance will receive her bachelor's degree from Smith on Sunday, 70 years after she took her first class.
Martindell, who married and divorced twice, has four children, nine grandchildren and two great-grandchildren who are all planning to attend her graduation, where she'll also receive an honorary doctorate degree.
"It's going to be a great family reunion," she said. "Much better than a funeral."
Despite her accomplishments, Martindell said, she always felt a void that a lifetime of voracious reading and an instinctive politician's way with people could not fill.
So, after her companion of 10 years, Sir Toss Woolaston, a noted New Zealand landscape painter whom she called "the love of my life," died in 1998, she took his advice and enrolled in Smith's Ada Comstock program, designed for older women returning to classes.
Martindell used a cane when she first arrived on campus, but within weeks it disappeared, said Eleanor Rothman, the program's founding director.
"She was revitalized. There was a spring in her step and a gleam in her eye," Rothman said. The intellectual stimulation "took 20 years off her life."
Martindell majored in American Studies and took classes at Smith and at Princeton University, near her New Jersey home.
Even her last course, Diplomacy of the 20th Century -- a subject with which she had more than a passing familiarity -- provided new insights.
"I learned an enormous amount about people of all different generations and about books. I loved the young people," she said.
Now, she is toying with graduate school or perhaps writing a book.
"My favorite suggestion is that I take a year off to find myself," she giggled.
Still, she says, the years after 60 are no time for a woman to stop using her brain. "Bridge can keep you sharper, but it's not like learning," she said.
Martindell wasn't the only one to benefit from her college experience, Rothman said.
"What she did for us was bring to the classroom the wealth of knowledge and experience she had gathered during her extraordinary life," Rothman said. "How many 20-year-olds have an opportunity to meet a woman like her?"
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