AN ENDURING THIRST FOR KNOWLEDGE
"Sometimes you make very important decisions so lightly," Velda Metelmann says, "that you don't realize you made a life-changing decision over a cup of tea."
That was certainly true for Metelmann in 1942, when she decided to drop out of Oregon State University — at the age of 19 — after just one year of studies and her life took her in a different direction.
It would be more than six decades before Metelmann returned to a classroom, but in all that time, she says, she never lost her love of learning. And last weekend, at the age of 94, she received her second master's degree from Marylhurst University at the school's commencement ceremony in Lake Oswego.
"One of the things I like so much about being old is that it's like you're on top of a mountain and now you have a 360-degree view all around, and you can see all the interconnections," Metelmann says. "Education is like that too. You begin to see it's all a web of interconnection."
After receiving her bachelor's degree in liberal arts and her first master's degree in interdisciplinary studies from Marylhurst, Metelmann recently completed a master's in food systems and society. Her thesis, titled "The Cycle of Hunger: Are gender issues the primary cause?" focused on patriarchy's impact on hunger in the developing countries of Africa and Asia.
"Does patriarchy affect hunger? In short, yes," Metelmann says. "Sixty percent of the world's hungry are women. There are many places in the world where men eat first, best and most. Even in the United States, there are families with this kind of male preference."
Metelmann says her enduring thirst for knowledge is an expression of her Baha'i faith, which teaches the essential worth, unity and equality of all people and all religions across the globe.
But for 67 years, Metelmann's path kept her away from college. After leaving OSU, a sense of adventure took her to Alaska, where she worked the switchboard at a Naval Operations Base in Sitka during World War II.
It was there she met her first husband, Gustav Piff, a naturalized American citizen from Austria-Hungary.
After the war, she and Piff returned to the Pacific Northwest to settle down and start a family. The couple had six children and began to explore their faith as Baha'is. They were married for 34 years, 10 months and 17 days before Piff died, and had been slated to travel abroad as missionaries, "pioneering" to spread their faith in different countries.
It took a couple years for Metelmann to recover from the death of her beloved husband, whom she describes as an amazing man of knowledge and faith. But once her wounded heart was healed, she decided to continue on her journey to spread her faith.
She was directed to go to Denmark, where she met her second husband, Christoph Metelmann, who was also pioneering as a Baha'i. The two connected instantly, and just a year later they were married in 1983.
They returned to the United States and settled in King City, where Metelmann resides to this day.
In 2011, upon the urging of her friend and fellow Baha'i Jane McIver, Metelmann, then 85, began to express interest in returning to school.
"I love writing and literature," she says, "I have an iPad and Kindle Fire, and I always have different books going on all of those. I'm juggling about three books at a time."
A writer herself, Metelmann pursued her bachelor's in Liberal Arts, taking courses at Marylhurst in writing, literature and mathematics. Her renewed zest for education was supported wholeheartedly by husband Christoph, she says.
"He really encouraged me. He always wanted me to fly, to shine, to do the best I could. I think that's very important for men and their partners," she says.
While Metelmann attended school, Christoph fell ill, and much of Metelmann's coursework was completed online so she could continue to take care of him from their King City home.
After 30 years and 17 days of marriage, Christoph passed away on Aug. 14, 2013. He would not live to see his wife graduate with her first master's degree in the spring of 2014, but his encouragement of her desire to continually seek knowledge still fills Metelmann and pushes her forward.
"The thing that has been so amazing to me, and what's been so different than my first college experience when I was young, is that I had been reared as a Methodist, and various things in college made me doubt the teachings I was given as a youth," Metelmann says. "When I started school at a mature age, every course I took confirmed my faith. Science and religion we Baha'is regard as truth. Both agree with one another."
For those who are considering not pursuing higher education after high school, Metelmann has a few wise words as someone who has lived and learned.
"Find something very useful to do for others. Do not just look at pleasure, and think it over very seriously before you decide not to go to school. You're going to get educated, whatever your experiences are," she says.
As for the future, Metelmann is looking forward to continuing to teach the virtues of the Baha'i faith, particularly to children, whom she sees as the key to creating a better future for everyone. She's also in the process of writing a book that serves as an extension of her first master's thesis.
That book, titled "Changing Gold to Platinum," will deal with teaching America's baby boomer generation how to have an exceptional old age — an area in which Metelmann views herself as something of an expert.