Woman finishes art degree 59 years after her first class

Posted: Sunday, May 02, 2004

It may have taken nearly 10 times as long as a traditional college education, but Clarice Kipp's day has finally come. At 78, the Kenai woman is earning her degree.

Clarice will receive a bachelor of arts degree in art at Kenai Peninsula College's commencement ceremony Tuesday. She also will speak at the ceremony.

The timing is apt, as KPC is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. But while Kipp started taking classes as soon as the campus opened, her love of learning goes back much further.

Raised in California, Clarice always enjoyed learning, especially about art.

"I've always been into art," she said. "I can't remember not drawing."


Kipp talks with her daughter Bettina between classes. Bettina Kipp works as an assistant professor of counseling at the college.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

After high school, she started her college education in Sacramento. But, she said, it was 1945 and times weren't easy.

"The economy wasn't great," explained Bettina Kipp, one of Clarice's daughters. "She went back to work, then got married."

A few years into the marriage, Clarice's husband, Glenn, proposed a move to Alaska.

"My father was a pilot. He flew up here and looked around," Bettina explained. Then, he asked Clarice if she'd be willing to move.

"She had a 5-year-old and a 6-month-old, but she thought it would be a great adventure," Bettina said.

And it was.

"We pulled a 15-foot house trailer up the highway in 1954," Clarice recalled. "We have an old movie somewhere of being pulled up a hill with a bulldozer."


Kipp works on a test in her history of photography class earlier this month. While art is her passion, she said she also enjoys the other subjects a bachelor of arts student has to master.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

The family spent a year in Anchorage before settling on the Kenai Peninsula, where Glenn and Clarice became involved in a number of community activities.

"I couldn't list the number of ways she contributed, especially in the early days of Kenai," Bettina said.

They built the Spur Motel in Kenai, which they operated for years. Glenn became a Civil Air Patrol squad commander, and Clarice handled the telephone for the civilian branch of the Air Force.

"At that time, there were no doctors, so we did a lot of evacuations and searches for people who were lost," Clarice said.

Glenn served with the early volunteer fire department in the area, and Clarice sat on the Kenai School Board in the 1960s.


Clarice Kipp receives her cap and gown from Shelly Love at Kenai Peninsula College's bookstore. Kipp will address her classmates during the KPC commencement next Tuesday.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

She also kept busy with her children, eventually raising five on the peninsula.

"She took us to the library all the time," Bettina recalled. "She's always been an avid reader. She encouraged us to read. By the time I was 6, I think I had read every children's book the Kenai library had."

Life was busy, but Clarice didn't let her own interests get waylaid.

She continued to pursue her art, making space in her home for a studio and helping in the early days of the Kenai Art Guild. Stained-glass windows created by Clarice and Betty Ames remain a centerpiece of the United Methodist Church of the New Covenant in Kenai.

"She worked with my father, took care of the house and raised her children, but she made her own space so she could do her art," Bettina said. "She's had her art studio as long as I can remember. That was a good lesson for us. You have to take care of yourself, have something you're passionate about pursuing. She carved that out of incredibly long work days and all she had to do."


Kipp pulls her books and papers behind her as she leaves the KPC campus following a class. She doubts that she'll leave the campus behind after she graduates though.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

As if that wasn't enough, though, Clarice added more.

"She began taking classes here and there," Bettina said. "She finished her associate of arts (degree) when I was in grade school. Even though she couldn't drop everything and be a full-time student, she had that goal in mind. She did what she could in bits and pieces."

Clarice said the development of the college just created an opportunity she couldn't pass up.

"The college was there," she said. "I took classes I thought looked interesting."

Mostly she took art classes, further developing her passion. But she remained interested in other subjects as well.

"Fortunately, I like things like math and English classes," she said.

Over time, she said, the college has changed and expanded.

"There's a lot of different things (the college) has to offer that it didn't have back then," she said.

She said she's especially enjoyed the professors and students along the way.

"Gary Freeburg was there almost 20 years. He was a very good instructor. I learned a lot from him. Celia Anderson is there now. The college didn't always have that well-qualified art teachers.

"One that stands out in my mind is Dennis Steffy. He taught a physics class. There were only about six kids in it. He had this way of explaining things. If you didn't understand, he could turn it around and make it make sense."

The students, too, have provided insight along the way.

One of KPC's selling points has long been the age diversity of its student body.

"There's every age there, and that makes the classes interesting," Clarice said. "Old people, young people, middle-aged people. I enjoy that point of view. You learn a lot from the people you're involved with. I would hate to just be around old people. I don't understand people who go live in retirement communities.

"I like kids. They have points of view you're not going to hear from an older person."

Art professor Celia Anderson said Clarice also adds perspectives that enlighten young-er students.


An alabaster sculpture Kipp created titled "Passing Through" is on display with other student works in the campus gallery.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"She continually surprised other students in class by her approaches to things that were so current," Anderson said. "There's almost a stereotypical response you expect from people who are older. She would say things and be willing to draw poses that were daring. I think that surprised some of the younger class. She was always such a wonderful example to them of how to enjoy school and really how to enjoy life."

That doesn't surprise Bettina, who said her mother has been a wonderful example for her own children, as well.

"My mother is incredibly resilient. What I got from her was that sense of resilience and independence," Bettina said. "She's an excellent example of the kind of woman who built this community.

"She's such a good example for her children and her grandchildren, especially the fe-males. I grew up feeling I could do anything I wanted. I just feel so fortunate."

Life hasn't always been easy for the Kipp family, though.

In 2001, Glenn was diagnosed with lung cancer, and Clarice and her three local children spent the next year caring for him full time. Glenn died in August 2002.

Clarice also has spent a lot of time working with one of Bettina's daughters, who suffers from a chronic disorder.

"My mother went through all the training to use the equipment to work with her and began working with her on a daily basis," Bettina said. "She went from unable to sit up at 1 year old ... and in a few months was sitting up, standing up and even walking.

"I think my mother was a therapeutic presence for her," Bettina said. "I don't think anyone else could have done it."

Challenges aside, though, Clarice said life is good. Her granddaughter, for example, brings joy to her life.

"She's such a happy child," Clarice said. "It's so nice to be around someone who's happy all the time. She wakes up from a nap happy. She falls down, picks herself up and is happy. She's fun to be around."

That positive attitude is, in fact, Clarice's secret for enjoying life.

"Even with all the bad things, we don't realize how rich we are," she said. "We're so wealthy compared to the rest of the world. We should spend more time appreciating what we have instead of complaining that someone else has more."

No one could accuse Clarice of failing to appreciate the world around her.

"It just seems like time is full. I don't have a lot of time," she said.

These days, in addition to finishing up a couple of classes for her degree, she also enjoys reading, walking on the beach, working in her greenhouse and traveling.

"I have never seen that woman bored in my entire life. Never," Bettina said. "I don't think she's capable of it. She simply would refuse to do it."

Of course, now that she's graduating, Clarice might find a little more free time on her hands. But she said she's sure it will fill up quickly.

She and her daughter Melanie, a music teacher, have discussed offering joint art and music classes for area children, though Clarice said they don't have it all planned out.

"I haven't decided what I'm going to be when I grow up," she laughed.

In fact, she said she might even continue taking classes at KPC, in art anyway.

"I don't have a particular goal in mind, but I might take a watercolor or life drawing class," she said. "There's so much to learn. How can you stop?"

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