She left the U of M to be a single mom in 1980. Now, at 78, she's graduating

A woman poses with U of M Gopher mascot
Kay Lacher poses for a photo with Goldy the Gopher. Lacher will be graduating May 16 at 78 years old.
Photo provided

When Kay Lacher got divorced in 1973, she says she had a dime to her name. She was a single mother on welfare supporting two young boys. She decided to enroll in her first college class at North Hennepin Community College at 29 years old.

“I was trying to make a better life for myself,” she said. “I thought I would support my children. I did not need any help from the government or an ex. I could do this myself. I didn’t doubt for a minute I could do it.”

She said she earned 95 credits from North Hennepin and transferred to the University of Minnesota in 1979. The classes were much harder at the U of M. She took classes in communications, business and marketing. She settled on an accounting major because she wanted to support herself with a steady income.

But right before completing her degree, she left. She says her children needed her more, and balancing raising a family and getting an education was an overwhelming situation. One had to be prioritized.

Lacher was just five credits — or two elective courses — short of graduating in 1980.

For the next 40 years she used what she learned at college, even though she didn’t officially graduate, to help her local community through volunteering and civic engagement.

She says she was the secretary for the McLeod County Historical Society, directed volunteers at the U.S. Olympic Festival in Minneapolis in 1990, compiled a book written by her father and was a regional director for USA Wrestling, among many other activities.

A woman poses at a graduation ceremony
Kay Lacher at her graduation ceremony in 1980.
Photo provided

She did not get married again until after her two sons were out of the house, but when she met her husband, Larry, she moved to Brownton, Minn.

As the COVID-19 pandemic began, Lacher did what many Americans did: try to stay inside, take up daily walks and find new hobbies. She was looking for a project and then it dawned on her: She could finish her degree.

“It just hit me,” she said. “I could do it, why couldn’t I?”

So Lacher contacted the U of M and began classes for the fall semester of 2021.

She took two courses: interior design and public health. She only wanted online courses and those two fit the requirement and allowed her to study remotely.

While going back to college was a different experience in the 21st century compared to the ‘80s, Lacher said in those two classes she had to work hard but it paid off for what she learned in return.

“Everyone jumped through hoops to get me through these last credits,” she said. "What I loved the most about the courses was the mental stimulation. I would like to take more courses voluntarily just to keep my mind sharp. I feel smarter, I feel challenged and I am excited and so thankful to God for the blessings he has given me to finish this degree.”

On Monday, at the age of 78, Lacher will finish what she set out to do decades ago: obtain her degree. Although she did walk in the ceremony in 1980, she says this time walking in the Carlson School of Management’s commencement ceremony will be different. Then, she had no diploma.

“Getting your degree when you are older and it has been on your mind a really long time, it just means a lot. I got pictures taken at the other ceremony, I did the whole nine yards, but this time I have my diploma, It is very important for me to walk across the stage and participate as a student.”

Lacher says she has no plans of obtaining an accounting job now that she has officially completed her degree but, rather, she wants to keep being an active member of her community and using the tools her courses gave her.

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