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Old 06-14-2018, 03:17 PM
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Default Central College’s oldest, youngest alumni meet

For the last 13 years, Central College’s oldest living alumna has called Newton Village home. At 106 years-old, Edna Van Zee doesn’t get out as much as she used to, and her eyesight isn’t as good as it once was, but she’s still sharp as a tack.

Earlier this year, Van Zee had a visit from Central’s youngest alumni —*Monica Powers, who graduated from the college in Pella last month. When officials from Central College called Van Zee to tell her the news, she couldn’t believe it at first.

“I surely was, I thought there’d be some students older than me. I just couldn’t believe I was the oldest one,” Van Zee said.

The age difference between the two women is 85 years, but despite the generational gap, they had plenty to share with one another. Both women lived in the same dormitory, Graham Hall, while they were attending Central. For Powers, the building was one of several co-ed dorms she lived in during her college career but for Van Zee, Graham was where all of the women who attended Central lived when she was a student.

Hearing Van Zee talk about life in the residence halls during the Great Depression had an impact on Powers, even though the building is still in use, plenty of things have changed in the last eight decades.

“Her generation, they had an adult living in the same building with them,” Powers said. “I was just surprised about how strict they were back then. We have a lot more freedom.”

Even under the watchful eye of an adult, Van Zee still had plenty of freedoms. Her father bought Van Zee and her twin sister a Chevrolet they nicknamed “Scatterbolts.” The two girls used the car to commute home to Prairie City on the weekends. Both girls played the piano during church services, and having the car also meant they could take part in a ritual familiar to any college student — bringing their dirty laundry home to wash over the weekend.

“I think the other girls envied us going home because we could take our laundry home and do it in our parent’s basement,” Van Zee said.

Every Friday, the twin sisters would make the trip back to Prairie City, even in bad weather. Van Zee recalled one particularly foggy night when the road was nearly impossible to see, her twin sister stuck her head out the window to guide her, shouting directions as they made their way home. As she listened to Van Zee talk, Powers said she could feel a connection building as they shared their experiences at Central.

“Knowing how old she is, and everything she’s done in life, there’s a lot of wisdom,” Powers said. “With these older generations, sometimes I think we don’t think about how they were in college like we are now.”

After graduating from Central in 1931, Van Zee went to work as a teacher. With the country still in the grip of the Great Depression, she remembers seeing her salary decline every year, from $85 a month her first year, all the way down to $35 a month by her third year teaching. When she married local farmer Bill Van Zee, she found her options even more limited, unmarried women had first priority for teaching jobs, so Van Zee focused on her family instead.

“We thought we wanted to be teachers. We just thought it was about the best thing you could do,” Van Zee said. “In those days, when you were married that was the end of your teaching career.”

Hearing Van Zee’s experiences as a career woman was fascinating for Powers, who’s still searching for her first post-college job. The communications and sociology double major from Creston said hearing Van Zee’s encouragement has helped her stay positive. During their meeting, Van Zee encouraged her to keep working, and told her things would work out.

“I think she was just encouraging. Just looking at her life, some of the experiences that she had, it’s just the wisdom that things work out,” Powers said. “She faced difficulties and she’d faced hardships, but she was really encouraging to me.”

For Van Zee, the visit was a chance to hear about all of the latest news from her alma mater. She hasn’t been able to visit as often she’d like. With her declining eyesight, Van Zee doesn’t drive anymore, she relies on her daughter and other friends to take her places she needs to go.

Even though she no longer gets behind the wheel, Van Zee is still remarkably healthy for her age. She had a pacemaker installed when she was 102, but it’s hardly slowed her down. She still wakes up and makes her bed every morning, like she’s done for years. When pressed for the secret of longevity Van Zee demurs.

“I think I inherited some good genes,” Van Zee said. “Coming from a good family, I think my family had a lot to do with it, giving us a good life. Living in Iowa, I suppose.”

Contact David Dolmage at 641-792-3121 ext. 6532 or

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