This week, the former railroader stepped forward to receive his diploma and the traditional laurel wreath that was awarded to Italian students after they graduated. His family, teachers and fellow students were more than 70 years younger than him.
“I’m a normal person like many others,” he said when asked what it felt like to graduate so late. “I outdid everyone else in terms of age, but I didn’t do it for it.”
Already in his 90s, when he enrolled in history and philosophy at the University of Palermo, Paterno grew up in loving books, but he never had the opportunity to study.
“I said, ‘This is it, now or never,’ so I decided to register in 2017,” he said to Reuters in his apartment in the Sicilian city of Palermo, which he rarely leaves nowadays because of his weakness.
“I understood that it was a little late to get a three-year degree, but I said to myself, ‘Let’s see if I can do that.'”
He graduated with honors on Wednesday and received congratulations from University Chancellor Fabrizio Micari.
Great depression, then war
Paterno grew up in a poor family in Sicily in the years before the Great Depression and received only primary education as a child. He joined the Navy and served during World War II before working at the railroad when he married and raised two children.
In a society that focused on post-war reconstruction, the focus was on work and family, but Paterno wanted to study and finish high school at the age of 31, always with the desire to go on.
“Knowing is like a suitcase I have with me, it’s a treasure,” he said.
As a student, he typed his essays on the manual typewriter that his mother gave him when he retired from the railroad in 1984. He avoided Google in favor of printed books and did not allow himself to be seduced by the nightly student parties of his 20th anniversary – old classmates who warmly applauded him at the graduation ceremony.
“They are an example for younger students,” said his sociology professor Francesca Rizzuto after passing his final oral exam in June.
Paterno admitted a bit of discomfort with the video calls that replaced classroom instruction during the corona virus shutdown, but said that after the war and everything else he had been through, he wasn’t put off by the disease itself.
“All of this has strengthened us, all of my peer groups, all of those who are still alive,” he said. “It didn’t really scare us.”
What he planned to do next, he said, would not stop now that he had graduated.
“My project for the future is to devote myself to writing. I want to go through all the texts that I could not research further. This is my goal.”