73-year-old UNLV grad wonders what’s next

Behold the tiny old lady, a force of nature.

Here she sits, at her kitchen table, telling her story, sometimes showing off just a little.

This particular tiny old lady has that right.

She is Pat Puckett, 73, a woman the size of a middle schooler with enough fight in her to take down a middle linebacker.

Cancer? So what.

A couple of strokes? So be it.

The agonizing death of her husband, the loss of purpose in her life, the revelation that she would have to relearn algebra?

“You do what you gotta do,” she says.

Puckett — and remember, she is 73 — graduated from UNLV last week with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from the senior adult theater program. She graduated with honors, a 3.74 grade-point average. She fought through health problems and a fear of math and science to do it. She believed she needed to.

“I had this incredible support all around me,” she says. “I found this new family at UNLV, and they watched out for me. We watched out for each other.”

Puckett didn’t start out at UNLV thinking she would get a degree. Far from it. Really, it began as a search for something to do.

She had been a few years without her husband, who died in 1997 after a long illness. Suddenly, her life seemed empty. She had been caring for him for so long, it seemed that caregiver had become her entire identity.

So, she thought, now what?

“I felt no purpose,” she says.

She was involved in her church. Visited hospice patients, worked part time at a religious school for the handicapped.

But none of it soothed her soul.

All through this, she had been dealing with stomach problems that had plagued her for more than a decade. She suffered a stroke, and says she didn’t know her name for three days.

She recovered, but then came a new diagnosis: cancer.

She was in her 60s then. She underwent treatment, much of it at the UCLA Medical Center. The cancer went into remission, eventually.

Puckett still felt lost. She was chatting with a friend from church who mentioned the senior adult theater program at UNLV. That was in 2000.

Doug Hill, the program’s associate director, said many students in the program are older people who are looking for activity. Any activity.

Puckett fit that description.

She signed up for a few classes. She liked it. She signed up for more. She grew to love it. She nursed a fascination with the idea of becoming a stage director. She directed a play, and that was it. She was hooked.

By 2004, she decided to go all the way, to get her bachelor’s degree. That meant becoming a full-fledged college student.

So there she was, taking a bunch of theater classes and enjoying every minute. And there she was, too, taking algebra. Biology. Sociology. English 101 and 102. Not only had she never been to college when she was young, no one in her family had ever been to college.

She remembers walking into one class, in particular, and it was obvious she didn’t fit in. Way too old, it seemed.

“Can I help you, ma’am?”

That was the instructor.

“I’m a student,” she replied.

Silence filled the room.

She fit in soon enough. She signed up for full loads of classes. She took those algebra classes in the summertime, so she would have nothing else to focus on. Same with biology. She got C grades in those, which is why her GPA is only near perfect instead of actually perfect.

Hill, the associate director, says Puckett was a star student. About 15 students are in the program working on their degrees, he said, and another 20 to 25 are just having fun.

As Puckett progressed through school, though, more health problems tried to slow her down. She suffered another stroke, milder than the first. The cancer returned, she’s pretty sure in 2007, but Puckett won’t dwell on it.

“I try not to own this,” she says. “That’s why I don’t know all the dates. I don’t want it.”

She underwent experimental treatment, at UCLA again. She found herself flying to California for that, coming back to Las Vegas for classes. It was profoundly difficult, but Hill says Puckett never once used her health as an excuse.

Her cancer went into remission again.

Which meant she could focus on school, again. Which meant she was going to graduate.

Which meant what, exactly? She wasn’t sure.

“When it was over, it’s like, ‘It’s over?’ That was such a letdown. It was like I had no purpose. It was exactly like I felt when my husband died. ‘What do I do now? What’s my purpose? Who am I?'”

She pondered that. She thought back to what, precisely, she had loved so much about school.

It was the simple joy of creating. By acting, by directing, by creating art, she was bringing happiness to other people.

And so that is now her purpose.

She will endeavor for now, and for as long as she can, to bring art to people who need it. She will do it in senior centers and nursing homes, hospices and long-term care centers. She wants to establish programs at one center after another, to get people involved who otherwise wouldn’t be. Hill says many of the program’s graduates end up doing something similar. They have performed for such groups before, as part of the program.

Puckett thinks there are people in some of those places who are, in her words, “sitting on a couch waiting to die.” That, to Puckett, is the saddest thing she can think of, to live life without purpose.

She has found her purpose, and she will bring it to them.

Contact reporter Richard Lake at rlake@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0307.

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