Going Back: Inspired by his late mother, retired accountant goes back to university

After a career of almost 40 years as an accountant, retiree Mark Woodruff, 62, has gone back to university to take history. He says he was inspired by his late mother's long experience with continuing education.

Mark Woodruff's mother 'made her life whole' with continuing education, Woodruff says

Mark Woodruff, 62, says his late mother's love of continuing education courses inspired him to go back to university to take history after his retirement. (Tina MacKenzie/CBC)

At 62, Mark Woodruff retired from a career of almost 40 years as an accountant. Going back to school seemed an obvious and natural next step.

"I've been an accountant all my life," said Woodruff. "But I've always enjoyed history." He'd done history as a minor at the University of Toronto in his 20s while studying for his MBA, and throughout his working life, he'd read books on Canadian and European history, and plan his holidays with an historical focus, reading historical works in preparation for his travels.

Once retired, he researched his options for pursuing a history degree online, and last September, he began a Masters of History program through the University of Edinburgh. 

I feel my mother's presence when I'm studying, reading something.Mark Woodruff

But it wasn't only his interest in history that made him decide to go back to university. It was also the example set by his mother, who took courses throughout much of her adult life through the University of Toronto's continuing education department.

"I was inspired by my mother," said Woodruff. From her early 50s, Betty Woodruff took one course at a time, usually in literature or film history, continuing almost until her death three years ago at the age of 84. 

"So I knew when I retired how I was going to stay active, keep my mind active," he said.

For Woodruff's mother, those courses helped to ground her after his father died.

"That's what focused her, kept her going. She met other people through it, and made her life whole," Woodruff said.

After his mother died, Woodruff went through the bookcases in her home, with books stacked in front and on top of other books and more books piled neatly on the floor.

"There were books everywhere," said Woodruff.

Going through the stacks, Woodruff came across a list his mother had kept, tracking a lifetime of reading.

"Sheets of paper, handwritten," said Woodruff. "She kept a life's list of books she had been reading since the early 50s, and there must have been a few thousand books on this list."

Betty Woodruff took continuing education courses from her early 50s continuing almost until her death three years ago at the age of 84. (Woodruff family photo)

The list was simple - just the titles and dates - but Woodruff knew the person behind that handwritten list.

"In her mind she was very open," said Woodruff. "She liked the classic books, but in her books, she kept very current. She read all the Governor-General [nominated] books. Canadian literature was her driving interest, keeping up with Margaret Atwood."

As an adult learner, retired from work and taking his course over four years, Woodruff has much more time for reading than the younger students in his online program. 

"I have time to enjoy what I'm doing," said Woodruff. "I get to read the course materials and even have time to delve into extra material, go down different rabbit holes." 

Compared with students taking three courses each term, Woodruff feels lucky.  "They're just trying to get through all 3 courses every week. I'm enjoying it as an adult student.  And having the time to appreciate the learning process."

Online learning has advantages, said Woodruff, when it comes to access to reading materials. As a student in his 20s, Woodruff sometimes had to line up at the University of Toronto library to find articles and books. 

Betty Woodruff was a librarian during her working life. "I feel my mother's presence when I'm studying, reading something," said Mark Woodruff. "Especially when I'm working at the library." (Woodruff Family Photo)

"The journal might be signed out to somebody," said Woodruff, "so you couldn't find it, and then having to photocopy, you know 20, 30 pages. Now you do your online searches through the U of T library, download them and have it on your laptop when you want it.  It's incredible what you can do now."

But there's a cost to the convenience of online education and long-distance learning.

"I'm finding interaction is a bit of a problem in the online program," said Woodruff. "Say every other week, we have an online seminar with the prof. I might be the only one showing up with the prof to have that discussion because the time doesn't suit everyone else. 

So that's a nice discussion for me.  But not for the other students.  And it's much less personal than sitting in the seminar or sitting with someone over coffee and talking about what you're doing," Woodruff said.

And yet in the middle of his online studies, Woodruff has discovered one more unexpected benefit — the sense sometimes of being close to his mother.

"I feel my mother's presence when I'm studying, reading something," said Woodruff. "Especially when I'm working at the library." For the first time in years, Woodruff has signed up for a Toronto Public Library card so he can work at the Toronto Central Library.

"And of course, my mother had worked at the library, been a librarian. That's a nice time when I feel her presence."