Image Source: https://www.theguardian.com/
Giuseppe Paternò set his sights on obtaining a university education as a child growing up in Sicily in the 1930s. Poverty, war and supporting a family got in the way. Now, at 96, he has achieved his goal, becoming Italy’s oldest graduate in the process.
“I’ve finally realised my dream,” the former railway worker and second world war veteran said this week, after graduating with a degree in philosophy from the University of Palermo.
“Being able to study has always been my greatest aspiration, but my family wasn’t able to pay for my education. We were a large family and very poor.”
Paternò, the eldest of seven siblings, started working as a child, when he helped his father with his job at a brewery in Palermo. In July 1943, when the allied forces landed in Sicily, Paternò was working as a telegrapher for the Italian army in Trapani.
“I came out unscathed from the war and took a job working for the state railway service. I wasn’t enthused about my job, but I knew I had to do it because by that time I was married and had a family to support. At the same time, I had an overwhelming desire to dive into books and read, study and learn.”
At the age of 31, after attending evening classes, Paternò graduated from high school as a surveyor. “During the day, I’d work. In the evening I’d attend school, and at night I’d study,” he said. But his dream of earning a university degree remained elusive.
Eventually, in 2017, Paternò enrolled in the department of philosophy at the University of Palermo.
“I’d wake up at seven to study,” he said. “I’d use an old typewriter to complete my assignments. I’d rest in the afternoon and in the evening I’d study until midnight. My neighbours used to ask, ‘why all this trouble at your age?’ But they couldn’t understand the importance of reaching a dream, regardless of my age.”
With a few exams left, the Covid-19 pandemic risked stalling his graduation. When courses transitioned to remote learning platforms, Paternò was obliged to come to terms with the new technology.
“When the pandemic arrived, we started to fear for his health,” said Ninni Paternò, Giuseppe’s son. “I told my father that we could postpone exams and that he could go back to classes in the autumn. But he said no. He said that, given his advanced age, he feared he wouldn’t make it through the summer.”
Paternò’s dream came to fruition last Friday, when he graduated first in his class with top honours. “It’s one of the happiest days of my entire life,” he said. “I only wish my wife were here to see me. She died 14 years ago.”
Has Paternò stopped dreaming? On the contrary. “I’m considering carrying on for a master’s degree. My mother lived to be 100. If the numbers and the genetics are on my side, then I still have four years left.”