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“It’s never too late!” 92-year-old Sarah Wells becomes oldest person ever to earn high school diploma from Madison College

A young Sarah Wells and 92-year-old new high school graduate Sarah Wells

Harry S. Truman was supposed to be the president when Sarah Wells graduated from high school in 1952 but some tough life circumstances at the time forced her to drop out of school. More than seven decades later, during the presidency of Joe Biden, Wells is now officially a graduate and making history.

On May 23, after a journey filled with challenges and setbacks, Wells became the oldest person ever to earn a high school diploma from Madison College earning a high school diploma through Madison College’s GED/HSED program.

“I’ve always wanted to finish school, but could never do it. This was a great opportunity for me. I’m still excited as we talk about it,” Wells tells Madison365. “My daughter, Mary, was a very big help for me and I really appreciate it. I thought the classes were very nice. I really enjoyed it. I was so happy that I was able to attend like I did.”

“I helped with the technology piece … Mom has gone through some basic computer classes, but I was able to help her navigate on e-mail and the Internet,” daughter Mary Wells tells Madison365. “All of the classes were live classes online and she was able to participate in them all. She was really a trooper. There were some days when she didn’t feel up to it – she’s had a lot of health struggles along the way – but she always made an effort to be at class.”

Sarah Wells (right) with daughter, Mary Wells
(Photo: UW Odyssey Project)

Wells has been a member of Odyssey Senior, the UW Odyssey Project’s newest initiative, a five-week enrichment program celebrating the stories of Odyssey elders, and was so inspired by the program that she decided to go back to school to get her high school diploma.

“In my four decades of being a UW professor, I have never met a student who epitomized lifelong learning more than 92-year-old Ms. Sarah Wells. I was so proud to watch her make history as the oldest person ever to receive a high school diploma from Madison College,” Odyssey Project executive director Emily Auerbach tells Madison365.

Auerbach says she loved having Sarah Wells in her inaugural Odyssey Senior class which started in March of 2023 and she attended with her daughter, Mary, an alumni of the Odyssey Class of 2007.

“We read excerpts from autobiographies by Maya Angelou, Malcolm X, and others, and then Odyssey Senior students wrote their own memories from childhood and young adulthood,” Auerbach says. “We shared their writing in our Odyssey Senior newsletter.”

All told, Sarah Wells has had a daughter, niece, nephew, and grandson who were all in one Odyssey Program or another.

“We have had four generations of the Wells family involved in Odyssey, from Ms. Sarah Wells in [Odyssey] Senior down to her great-grandson in Odyssey Junior,” Auerbach says. “The whole Wells family is so proud of their dynamic, dedicated, and inspiring matriarch, cheering her on as she not only earned her HSED but also a legislative proclamation, plaque, and Exemplary Learner award. We celebrated Ms. Wells at a lively party on the eve of her graduation.

“I am so thrilled to congratulate Ms. Sarah Wells on her amazing accomplishment and to thank Mary Wells for all she does to support her mother’s pursuit of lifelong learning,” Auerbach adds.

Sarah Wells with Bucky Badger

Sarah Wells is originally from Salem, Ohio, just south of Youngstown, and came to Madison in 1948 as a teenager. “She came to work with my grandmother who was already here – she was a cook on the UW campus in a sorority house on Langdon Street,” Mary Wells remembers.

“130 Langdon Street!” Sarah Wells interjects. 

“Mom always wanted to go back and see that place. So one day she had me drive her over there to see that house,” Mary Wells says. “They let us go inside and walk around and see what it looks like today.”

Madison was so much different back in those days, Sarah Wells remembers. “I lived on Mound Street and West Washington Ave. and Park Street. We didn’t have transportation. We walked everywhere we went,” she says. “It really was nothing for us to walk from Langdon Street down to South Madison. We did it regularly. 

“Every time I go around Madison now I can’t believe how much it has changed since I’ve been here,” she adds. “I’m looking forward to the new Center for Black Excellence (and Culture) being built on the South Side.”

“Mom has invested a few dollars to the cause,” Mary Wells adds. “She’s always asking, ‘Have they started to build yet?’ (Groundbreaking for the Center for Black Excellence is slated for Wednesday, June 19.) Mom has also sent a few dollars to One City Schools. She’s really invested in her community. She stays on top of things in her city.”

The impetus to go back to school came from professor Sandra Adell in Odyssey Senior, Mary Wells remembers. “She told my mom that it’s never too late to go back to school to get your GED. You can do it.’ And my mom said, ‘Let’s go on over there!’

And that started a year-long process to get her HSED.

Community members and the Odyssey family threw her a party to celebrate the completion on May 22. Family members came from out of state to celebrate the milestone. “My mom’s been here for so many years so she knows quite a few people,” Mary Wells says. 

The day after, nearly 100 family and friends came to Wells’ Madison College commencement to cheer her on May 23 as Wells got dressed up in her cap and gown for Madison College High School Completion GED/HSED Commencement Ceremony at the Mitby Theatre of Madison College-Truax Campus.

Sarah Wells, who will be 93 in December, plans to take advantage of the “senior auditor” policy that allows older adults to sit in on UW classes. 

What would she tell people who feel they are too old to do something in life?

“I’d say, ‘Look at me. I’m the perfect example! It’s never too late!” she says.