RICHMOND — Marjorie Farris does not believe in an idle mind.
All her life, she has loved books and knowledge. But not just the acquisition of knowledge — the discussion of it with others, the gathering of new ideas, the challenge of hearing how others interpret information.
She is a born student — at 77. She started work on her second master's degree about 41/2 years ago. Farris will receive that second master's degree — this one in history — from Eastern Kentucky University in May. Her first was in English.
She couldn't attend graduation that day in 1989. Her husband Joe, who would later die after suffering with esophageal cancer, was too ill for her to attend.
Now Farris, a childhood polio survivor, plans to roll her wheelchair across the stage for her second master's. And she won't stop taking classes after that. In the fall, she plans to take up gender studies.
"We will just see where that takes me," she said.
Her master's thesis for the history degree centered around Kentucky coal miners from 1930-70 who migrated north to cities such as Detroit, Chicago and Cincinnati, and what happened to them as they aged and died.
Farris' research showed that many of them returned to their native mountains for burial, which she calls a post-death migration. The post-death migration often occurred even if the miners had survivors still living in the northern cities.
"I love doing research and I don't mind the writing," Farris said of her affinity for academia.
For her history degree, she said, "I had to do quite a bit of catch-up with undergraduate classes."
Because Farris is a senior citizen, her classes are free under a program called the O'Donnell Scholarships. The program allows anyone 65 and older to take college courses tuition-free, but they still pay for books, course fees and supplies.
"The best part has been being with the younger students," Marjorie said.
She notes that she is at least three times as old as many of her classmates.
One of those classmates is Matt Gerth, with whom Farris said she has had some of her best and most pointed conversations.
Farris "believes that knowledge is the key to a better world," Gerth said of his intellectual sparring partner. "In many ways we are quite opposite," he said, but added that Farris is "a true believer in staying positive about any situation."
But she's no pushover, he said: "She makes sure she sticks to her points. She gives as good as she takes."
Her first thesis, for her master's in English, was part of a novel about how difficult it was for women to make decisions. It was called Solomon's Child. She was given the idea to get a second master's degree by EKU faculty member Christiane Taylor.
Part of Farris' intellectual rigor came from her midwestern upbringing: "We would sit around the dining room table — we were very poor, we couldn't afford anything else — and reminisce about people decades back."
From that she honed her sense of history: Her great-grandmother was born in Stamping Ground. Her great-grandfather had ties to the Mayflower.
As a 3-month-old in Iowa, her parents noticed her lower body wouldn't move. Marjorie was diagnosed with polio, then called infantile paralysis. Her parents were told to try warm baths. Now Marjorie thinks the doctor probably meant the kind of warm springs used by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but her parents took the instruction more literally.
They carried wood twice a day to warm water for Marjorie's legs. Eventually she could walk without help, but while on a trip to Amsterdam in 1969, she was in an auto accident in which she broke her shoulder, hip and pelvis.
Marjorie got her bachelor's degree in Nebraska. She has taught elementary school and classes at EKU, as well as serving as director of Project Read in Madison County.
She met her husband Joe, who worked at the Madison County army depot writing standard operating procedures, and the two "were in each other's presence for 15 days before we got married."
She wrote a self-published novel about the depot, Igloo 49.
The two had their daughter Ashley late in life. Marjorie was 43, Joe was 56.
Farris has osteoporosis — due in part to not having enough weight-bearing activities as a child — and in 2010 broke her left leg for the fifth time. She decided to give up walking and get around by wheelchair.
Her mind remains the stuff of championship gymnastics.
"I no longer have to worry about wet streets or wet floors or ice," she said of getting around by wheelchair.
The EKU campus has also moved ahead light-years in handicap accessibility over the last few decades, she said.
Farris first went back to school in 1986 as her daughter started first grade. Going back again in 2011, she said, was "like a whole new world."
Farris lives in a spotless single-floor home near a Richmond commercial corridor; a married daughter, an academic herself, lives in Vancouver. A feral cat sleeps on the porch of Farris' home. A portly robin has built a nest on her front-door wreath.
"I don't have family here, but I have very, very good friends," she said.