Thursday, May 11, 2000

Immigrant gets Ph.D. at age 90

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The most newsworthy portion of Elizabeth Eichelbaum's story, I suppose, is that Friday at age 90 she will receive her doctorate. The title of her dissertation is “The Use of Art Therapy to Deal with Low Self Esteem Among the Aged.”

        Mrs. Eichelbaum's son, Stan, who runs a consulting firm in Cincinnati, is on his way to the graduation ceremony at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. His plan is a succession of wonderful restaurants for the out-of-town family and friends who will meet him there.


        Elizabeth Eichelbaum is cooking. Chicken. Sweet and sour meatballs. Spinach pancakes. “People say I set a nice table. There will only be about 40 people or so. I like to do things for myself.”

        Nearly blind from macular degeneration, she hired students to help during the last two years of her doctoral preparation. She can't drive anymore, so she walks to work at a nursing home. A small journey, she says.

        The big journey was from Russia to find her mother, who had come to this country when Elizabeth was 18 months old. “It took a couple of years to save enough money to send for us, and when she did, it was too late. The war had started.” Her grandmother, who had been caring for the child, died in a basement where they were hiding from soldiers.

Covered wagon
        After the war, some American reporters came to Kiev. A little girl in an orphanage told them she had a mother in America. Connection was made. “We started our journey in a covered wagon.” A year later, she boarded a ship from France to New York and a tenement in Harlem.

        She arrived in October of 1921. Her first American shoes were high-top Buster Browns. She cooked. She cleaned. She went to school. She finished the eighth grade, then went to work in a clothing store.

        And always she drew pictures.

        She married a baker, moved to Detroit, where they owned a Kosher restaurant just a block from the headquarters of Motown Records. Marvin Gaye, Milton Berle, Lenny Bruce were among the regulars.

"Amaze yourself'
        After her husband died, she went back to school. “Back when I was young, all a girl had to do was read and write and get married.”

        She passed the GED test with flying — extremely flying — colors and enrolled in college, receiving her bachelor's degree at age 69 and her master's at 81. By now, her drawings have become paintings. “Since I'll have a little more time now, I will be painting more.”

        And working, of course. Cleaning her house, cooking and bringing her favorite message to the people at the nursing home.

        “Try it,” she tells them. “You might amaze yourself.”

        Her family has started a scholarship in her name to support other older students, a little financial nudge, a reminder that it's never too late.

        “Don't tell me you can't do something,” she would say to her four sons, this woman who begged for food as a child and walked on feet scarred by frostbite, who worked 12- and 14- and 16-hour days.

        Stan thinks his mother's life should be a book called Growing Young. And the best lesson is that Dr. Elizabeth Eichelbaum has not yet written the final chapter.

        E-mail Laura Pulfer at or call 768-8393.