LOOK: He’s lived through WWII, childhood poverty and Covid-19. Now, at 96, he has graduated top of his class

By Guglielmo Mangiapane and Antonio Parrinello

Palermo, Italy – At 96, Giuseppe Paterno has faced many tests in life – childhood poverty, war and, more recently, the coronavirus pandemic. Now he has sailed through an exam that makes him Italy’s oldest university graduate.

This week, the former railway worker stepped forward to receive his diploma and the traditional laurel wreath awarded to Italian students when they graduate, applauded by his family, teachers and fellow students more than 70 years his junior.

“I am a normal person, like many others,” he said, when asked what it felt like to be graduating so late. “In terms of age I have surpassed all the others but I didn’t do it for this.”

Already in his 90s when he enrolled for a degree in History and Philosophy at the University of Palermo, Paterno grew up loving books, but he never had the chance to study.

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Giuseppe Paterno, 96, is helped by his son Ninni Paterno, 72, to get up from his bed, two days before he graduates from The University of Palermo. Picture: Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters

“I said, ‘that’s it, now or never,’ and so in 2017, I decided to enrol,” he told Reuters in his apartment in the Sicilian city of Palermo, which he rarely leaves nowadays due to his frailty.

“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 it’.”

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Giuseppe Paterno, 96, Italy’s oldest student, takes his final exam online, for his undergraduate degree that he has been studying for in history and philosophy at the University of Palermo. Picture: Antonio Parrinello/Reuters

On Wednesday, he graduated first in his class with top honours, receiving congratulations from the university chancellor Fabrizio Micari.

GREAT DEPRESSION, THEN WAR

Growing up in a poor family in Sicily in the years before the Great Depression, Paterno received only basic schooling as a child. He joined the navy and served during World War Two before going on to work in the railways as he married and brought up two children.

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Vintage radios sit on the bedside table of Giuseppe Paterno, 96, Italy’s oldest student, at his home in Palermo. Picture: Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters

In a society focused on rebuilding after the war, work and family were the priorities, but Paterno wanted to learn and graduated from high school at the age of 31, always harbouring a desire to go further.

“Knowledge is like a suitcase that I carry with me, it is a treasure,” he said.

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The gravestone of Stefana Battaglia – the wife of Giuseppe Paterno – who died in 2006, in the cemetery Santa Maria dei Rotoli in Palermo. Picture: Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters

As a student, he tapped out his essays on the manual typewriter his mother gave him when he retired from the railways in 1984. He eschewed Google in favour of printed books and was not tempted by the late-night student parties of his 20-year-old classmates, who applauded him warmly at the graduation ceremony.

“You are an example for younger students,” his Sociology professor, Francesca Rizzuto, told him after he passed his final oral examination in June.

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Giuseppe Paterno uses his typewriter as he studies for an exam at his home in Palermo. Picture: Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters

Paterno confessed to a little unease with the video calls that replaced classroom teaching during the coronavirus shutdown, but said he was not put off by the disease itself after the war and everything else he had been through.

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Giuseppe Paterno takes an elevator up to his apartment as he returns home from the supermarket two days before he graduates from The University of Palermo. Picture: Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters

“All of that strengthened us, all of my peer group, all of those who are still alive,” he said. “It didn’t really scare us that much.”

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Giuseppe Paterno uses his typewriter a day before he graduates from The University of Palermo with an undergraduate degree in history and philosophy. Picture: Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters

As for what he planned to do next, he said he was not about to stop now he had graduated.

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Philosophy books belonging to Giuseppe Paterno, 96, Italy’s oldest student, stand on a shelf at his home in Palermo. Picture: Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters

“My project for the future is to devote myself to writing; I want to revisit all the texts I didn’t have a chance to explore further. This is my goal.”

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