Student hopes to graduate from WKU more than 40 years after beginning degree

Peggy Dee Allen, 63, of Franklin, spends her time away from the classroom practicing woodworking in an old elementary school turned workshop in Franklin. Allen was a student at WKU from 1970 to 1972 and has now returned to earn a business degree.

Tessa Duvall

Peggy Dee Allen has always been a little bit nontraditional.

 Allen, a WKU student from Franklin, is taking a standard course load consisting of speech, math, sociology and western civilization, just like many other students this spring.

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 But the similarities stop there.

 “It’s a good thing my name is Peggy because I’ve always been a square peg in a round hole,” Allen said. “I’ve always been nontraditional in one way or another.”

 In denim overalls and her graying-brown hair neatly pulled back into a braided bun, Allen doesn’t fit the mold of a typical student. Allen admits that she considers her own computer a heavy paperweight and that she struggles with using programs like TopNet and Blackboard for her classes.

“I don’t have a problem with the age. My biggest concern is the computer aspect of it,” she said. “What I lack in all these other skills, I’m gonna make up for in pure damn determination.”

 At 63, Allen is one of 52 undergraduate students over the age of 60 enrolled at WKU. After being laid off from her factory job last year, Allen began working with the Barren River Area Development District’s Trade Program to continue — and hopefully finish — her education.

 “But I never saw myself doing this at this point in time. I really thought I would get my education early in life and get some kind of a structured job, a normal job.”

 Allen was first on the Hill from 1970 to 1972 but dropped out and earned her living doing factory work. Since then, she has worked in factories to support herself while pursuing her personal passion of woodworking as a hobby.

 At age nine, Allen discovered she enjoyed working with her hands, spending her days in the cabinet shop her father and uncle owned in Franklin while her mother worked at a factory. That summer, Allen made a 14-room furnished dollhouse.

 More than five decades later, Allen has built or restored every piece of furniture in her house, as well as designed and constructed her own kitchen cabinets to suit her needs.

 The desire to be active and hands-on led her to work in at least 10 factories. Consequently, she has been laid off as many times, with most recently on Sept. 2, 2011, when her job was outsourced to Mexico.

 This layoff is what led Allen to work with BRADD, the Barren River Area Development District, and finish an undertaking she began in 1970 — earning her college degree.

 Tonya Mudd, trade coordinator at BRADD, said the Workforce Investment Act’s Trade Program pays for up to two years of the books and tuition of those who have been laid off.

 The associate’s degree a participant pursues must be marketable and lend itself toward finding self-sufficient employment.

Because most of Allen’s credit hours from her first time on the Hill still count, she is using her two years of tuition to complete a bachelor’s degree in business.

 “I mean, this is a golden opportunity for me,” Allen said. “I would not get to do this otherwise because it’s so expensive.”

Allen and her first husband, who she married weeks after finishing high school in 1966, planned to take night classes together because they both worked during the day. At the time, Allen was a quality control inspector at Potter & Brumfield in Franklin.

But the Vietnam War changed the couples’ plans for education. Allen’s husband joined the Navy to avoid being drafted into the Army, and the couple moved to Jacksonville, Fla., where Allen worked as a switchboard operator for two years.

 In 1970, Allen divorced and moved home to Franklin, enrolled at WKU and worked part time for her father’s business.

 “I needed a part-time job with flexible hours and Daddy said, ‘Well, you can come to work over here for me,’ and I’m like, ‘Why didn’t I ever think of this?’ But women didn’t typically do that.”

 For two years, Allen studied business at WKU while balancing keeping house and working a job on the side.

Although Allen’s husband was supportive of her in many ways, he did not support her pursuit of a degree.

 “Well, I made the mistake of marrying again. Husband No. 2 was not supportive of this plan whatsoever,” she said.

“It was extremely hard to do when you’re fighting that.

“So I learned my lesson, and I never tried that again. I’ve been single since 1980.”

 Allen’s lack of a postsecondary education has restricted her career options. She had no desire to work in an office and liked the good pay that went along with factory work.

 Allen’s life-long friend Jimmy Cardwell, 61, owns the old West Simpson Elementary School building, built in 1956, in Franklin, where the two keep their woodworking equipment and work on projects. The school was built on land formerly owned by Cardwell’s grandparents, and he has been restoring the building for the last several years with Allen helping every step of the way.

 It was Allen’s father who also introduced Cardwell to woodworking, when at the age of 15, he began working in the cabinetmaking shop in Franklin.

 “She used to come over a lot and work on little, small projects,” he said. “And when I was working for her dad and just over the years, she’s gotten to escalating up, working on bigger projects.”

 Although some of Allen’s friends don’t understand why she wants to go back to school, Cardwell supports her.

 “I think it’s awesome at her age,” he said. “I think it’s a great thing. You can’t never get too much education. It’s something my aunt said: ‘Well, always get a good education because that’s something no one can ever take away from you.’”

 The duo was on the Hill together in the 1970s and even took the same geography class, before cell phones and computers, Cardwell recalled.

 In the shop, Allen works meticulously on every project she does — She applies the same dedication in the classroom. In all of her classes, she sits in the front row and isn’t afraid of asking questions.

 Jennifer Dietzel, Allen’s adviser when she started at WKU, said she doesn’t see anyone or anything breaking her spirit or holding her back.

 Although Allen’s age has provided challenges with new technology, Dietzel said she sees many advantages.

 “She’s not worried about the things that even I was concerned about — I wanted to be in a sorority. I wanted to go hang out with my girlfriends on a Thursday night at a fraternity house. I wanted to go out to the mall and buy a new pair of shoes, what have you. She’s focused. She’s had to jump through some hurdles.

 “If Peggy’s up late last night, she’s on a woodworking project and she just couldn’t get away from it.”

 Allen hopes that by the time she finishes her degree, the economy will have improved and she can earn a living by running her own woodworking business and selling pieces she has made online.

 Until then, she isn’t giving up on her lifelong dream of graduating college, a dream 40 years in the making.

 “People will take you so much more seriously if you have gotten your education and you won’t just be a peon in a factory or a burger flipper at McDonald’s,” she said.

 “Most people can be more than that, and I think you ought to be everything you can.”