By Katharine Webster
Mary Humble has lived her life in threes.
Almost 60 years ago, her family brought her home from her convent boarding school. They needed her to help with the family business: a general store, guesthouse and pub known for its live music in Bantry Bay, Ireland.
She was 15 years old and just three months shy of completing her intermediate certificate. But March was the start of the busy tourist season – and she was the only daughter and the only one of three children with a musical gift. She played piano and accordion with her dad, a violinist.
“I was his princess, and he wanted me playing music with him. My dad didn’t believe in school. His reasoning was that I didn’t need it because I had all the employment I needed at home,” she says. “I got a lot of life’s education for sure, dealing with people of every sort.”
Fast forward to 2001. After marrying three times and losing two husbands, raising three children and living in three countries, Humble was diagnosed with Stage 4 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and given no more than three years to live. She had to quit her job in advertising sales and go through chemotherapy. Time dragged.
“I had a deep yen to go back to school, because for the first time, the days seemed too long,” she says.
So she completed her GED diploma at Tewksbury Memorial High School and then earned her associate’s degree at Middlesex Community College. Seventeen years later, she’s still alive, her cancer is under control and she’s studying for her Bachelor of Liberal Arts, one or two classes at a time.
Soon, three generations of her family will be at UMass Lowell together. Last fall, Humble was joined by her daughter, Deirdre Hutchison, a first-year student majoring in history. And this summer, Humble’s granddaughter and Hutchison’s daughter, Georgina, will transfer to UMass Lowell to study criminal justice.
Deirdre Hutchison, too, had her education cut short in Ireland. A severe toxoplasmosis infection during her second year of high school caused temporary blindness in one eye and crippling headaches that put her way behind on schoolwork.
The next year, her stepfather – the only father she’d ever known – was diagnosed with cancer and died. As she and her mother nursed him and then mourned, Hutchison fell even further behind.
“I went from an honors student to struggling hugely,” she says. “School became a nightmare for me.”
Humble, needing a fresh start in a new place untroubled by terrible memories, decided to move to England three months before Hutchison was due to finish high school. Hutchison stayed behind with an older sister, but ultimately failed to graduate because she passed only four of the five requisite exams.
Soon after, she joined her mother in England and found work as a temp for Lloyd’s of London, quickly advancing to a permanent job as a computer operator. She worked in business for 12 years.
She married, had two children of her own and moved with her family to the United States, then back to England, and finally to the U.S. for good. (Humble and her third husband had also gotten green cards and moved to Tewksbury, following Deirdre’s older sister.)
Hutchison completed her GED diploma quickly, but she postponed any further education until her son reached high school, when she took a couple of math classes at Northern Essex Community College so she could pass her college placement tests.
“I finally had the courage to see if I’d be able to handle school again,” she says. “It always bothered me that I didn’t have a degree.”
Her mother persuaded her to check out UMass Lowell. On a visit to campus last spring, History Prof. Christoph Strobel invited Hutchison to his class on the rise of Nazi Germany. She loved it – and decided to enroll as a history major for the sheer love of learning, even though writing terrified her. She was assured that she could find all the help she needed at the Writing Center in O’Leary Library.
“Now I’m in the Writing Center every week,” she says.
Her daughter, Georgina, graduated from Central Catholic High School a year ago and started college at the same time as her mom, studying forensic science at the University of Scranton. But she enjoyed her Introduction to Criminal Justice class much more than chemistry and biology, and she missed her family in Andover. So she left after one semester.
A couple of weeks ago, Georgina learned she’d been accepted to UML’s School of Criminology and Justice Studies as a transfer student. She immediately signed up for four summer classes.
Georgina plans to pursue the mental health concentration. After suffering seven concussions as a competitive synchronized swimmer, she wants to learn more about how the justice system treats people with emotional and intellectual disabilities.
“UMass Lowell has a very good criminal justice program, and it’s close enough to my family that I can see my brother,” she says. “And I can see my mother and grandmother on South Campus.”
Humble will be here for a while yet. She hopes to graduate in May 2019, but she’s in no hurry. Recently, she’s added classes in art history to her concentrations in sociology and psychology.
She says the joy of learning has kept her alive, despite setbacks and missed semesters caused by the cancer and rheumatoid arthritis. She’s incredibly grateful to Gerald Durkin, associate dean of enrollment and director of transfer admissions, who welcomed her the day she started and made it easy for her to keep going.
“Now school is the biggest part of my life. Every single class I’ve taken fires my spirit up and makes me hunger for more. Except for math – give me chemo any day,” Humble jokes.
“A lot of times, I thought, ‘I can’t do this.’ But each time, I’d come back and the door was always open. I’ve had a lot of people helping me – professors, tutors, advisors and technical support – and I think that I owe it to them to finish.”