State's Oldest Student Isn't a Paint by Numbers Type
By Lee Rasizer, PR Coordinator
Graham Witherspoon flips through his spiral-bound artist’s notebooks and the moments of his life appear in vivid color and detail.
And at age 91, there’s plenty of territory to cover for the oldest community college student in the state of Colorado.
There’s a copy of the Christmas card he drew in 1945 just after serving in the Pacific Theater in World War II, in which Santa Claus giddily jumps through the ocean on a swordfish. There’s visual representation of the first poem that he ever wrote at six years old, which he still has memorized, about a squirrel and a rabbit.
A portrait of a Navy officer standing on the shore waiting for deployment, “The Lone Sailor” is one of his favorites, and brings back a flood of memories, dating all the way back to the time he had to gorge on bananas to gain the 2 1/2 pounds necessary to reach 132 and meet physical specifications for entry into the military.
“I’m an old sailor,” Witherspoon says proudly.
Of course, there are myriad paintings, too, of his beloved wife, Pat, on the peaks of the state and at the peak of her life.
Community College of Aurora has helped Witherspoon hone his artistic skills and reproduce some of the vision’s still vivid in his mind’s eye of their times together on paper and canvas, and helped draw out a quality in execution missing from the works of his younger days.
Graham and Pat climbed 34 of 54 of Colorado’s fourteeners in the 1970s. And while Alzheimer’s Disease has sapped Pat of her speech and memories, Graham carries them on, not only with his art, but as advocate for those affected by that disease and schizophrenia, too, which played a role in the demise of his son, John, who passed more than 40 years ago.
Those family’s struggles with brain diseases initially brought Witherspoon to CCA in the fall of 2006. He didn’t want to wallow alone in spare time, so he re-entered school a mere 54 years after he stepped off the University of Missouri campus and into battle in January 1942.
Witherspoon’s since taken 13 courses at CCA, focusing on painting, drawing and creative writing. while also dabbling in astronomy. He’s enrolled this summer in Painting IV for a fifth time, since he considers instructor Randal Painter one his biggest creative supporters and “one of the greatest artists I’ve ever met.”
“I’m obviously a different kind of student than the other students in the class,” Witherspoon said. “No. 1, I’m older.”
But he’s as motivated as anyone half his age, or more.
His artwork is sprinkled throughout his writings and poetry, and strewn about his house and those of his children.
A pencil drawing of his wife graces the cover of the book he wrote, “The Taking Disease,” which discusses his wife’s “better days” followed by her rough descent into an Alzheimer’s facility.
His works aren’t all plaintive. There are drawings of a wolf, leopard and a pirate, too.
Still, he admitted, “I have an inclination to do things that I’ve done, like climbing mountains.”
Much of his artwork quietly tell stories of the places he’s been, physically and emotionally. They speak in a manner unlike his normal communications vehicle – his gift of gab.
“Sailors can tell sea stories,” he said matter-of-factly. “And love to tell them.”
Witherspoon has a million tales in his memory bank that he freely shares: about storms and typhoons; navigating by the stars, long before GPS systems took over; the time he helped rescue a Japanese survivor deserted on an island for a year after his ship sank; the assault on Minami, Iwo Jima; pulling parachuting B-29 pilots “out of the drink;” setting smokescreens with his ships fan tail while bombs dropped; how a uncle from many generations prior signed the Declaration of Independence; even getting his ship’s port director to re-route to San Francisco so he could meet a sorority girl he knew at Missouri that he’d written letters to while at sea -- only to find out she was engaged by the time the boat dropped anchor.
He’s quick to laugh at his prodigious storytelling, too.
That zeal for life is one reason he’s assimilated into the classroom atmosphere so effortlessly, even with his 92nd birthday on tap in October and the generation gap among fellow students clearly visible.
“I fit in, just like I do with anything I do,” Witherspoon explained.
Research shows that there have been four students within the last five years that have taken classes at Colorado Community College System schools while at least 91 years of age.
One 93-year-old student was registered as late as Fall 2010. A more recent Morgan Community College student turned 91 this month but was born five months before Witherspoon, who seemingly gets a kick out of his unique status as oldest of the lot.
“I don’t feel old, really. I go to the bagel shop every morning for breakfast and there’s people there 20 years younger than me and I’m in better shape than they are. Age is relative. And in my case, it’s in the genes. I inherited good longevity genes.”
Witherspoon’s return to college began simply, with a stroll into the admissions office to register.
It was so easy he didn’t even have to eat bananas to gain entrance this time around.
He suggested he’ll continue to take courses at CCA “probably until I’m 100.”
“It’s a sense of accomplishment, creating things,” Witherspoon noted. “And I guess all my life I’ve been the kind of person who’s liked to create things. This is just continuing on what I’ve done. … And they’ve accepted me as one of theirs.”
CAPTIONS: Graham Witherspoon’s paintings often depict his wife, Pat, in better times (above) or have a military bent, stemming from his WWII experience, like his depiction of Joe Rosenthal’s famous photo of the planting of the flag on Iwo Jima in 1945. Witherspoon served in that battle.