As Pearl Taylor marched in to E.A. Diddle Arena in her cap, gown and honors cords Saturday afternoon, her husband of more than five decades shouted "Pearl" and blew kisses.
She paused, stepped out of line for the second time and the two hugged. The first time she stepped out of the line, she shook the hand of a military serviceman in full dress uniform to thank him for his service to the country.
After hugging her husband Rhea Taylor, who was seated on a scooter on the same level as the graduates, she stepped back into the line and took her seat for Western Kentucky University's 179th commencement.
Taylor was one of 2,564 graduates during the Friday and Saturday ceremonies.
"She's really put her heart into it," Rhea Taylor said about his wife. "There's never been any doubt in my mind she would do it."
For Taylor, 80, her bachelor's degree conferred Saturday was more than 20 years in the making.
In 1999, she obtained her associate degree in small business management, and at the rate of one class a semester, or sometimes two classes, over a 20-year span, Taylor chipped away at her educational goal. She graduated Saturday with honors and a bachelor's degree in interdisciplinary studies.
"I am really excited," Pearl Taylor said prior to the ceremony as she was finding her place in line. "I'm proud to be around all these young people.
"I think this is the most wonderful day in my life besides my children being born because I finally reached my goal."
She tossed and turned in her bed Friday night just thinking about the excitement of finally earning her degree, she said.
"Through many tears and much laughter I finally did it," Taylor said during a surprise graduation party held by her friends Thursday at Steak 'n Shake.
"If it was not for all the support of my friends, my family and my husband I couldn't have done it," Taylor said.
Taylor and her friends, the Good Ole Girls, a branch of the Bowling Green Woman's Club, have been getting together for lunch once a month for about 15 years, her friend Romanza Johnson said. Usually they get together to celebrate any birthdays in their group that month. But Thursday in addition to a birthday, they celebrated Taylor achieving her lifelong dream of earning a bachelor's degree. They brought gifts and pink glittery party glasses like the kind people usually wear for New Year's Eve, except instead of the year, Taylor's plastic frames were shaped into the word "grad."
She meant to bring them with her to Diddle Arena on Saturday, but in her haste to get out the door, left them behind. Like other graduates in their 20s, Taylor walked into the arena clutching her iPhone.
"I hope I can show people the spirit, that if they have something in their heart, go do it. Dear God, life is short," Taylor said.
Taylor married young, when she was 17. She and her first husband had four children together and were living in Germany when her husband was killed while serving in the military. A young widow, at 24 years old, Taylor returned to the United States with her four small children in tow and took a job in the commissary at Fort Knox, where she helped fit glasses on people in the optical shop. There was no bigger reward in that job than fitting babies with glasses and watching their faces light up as they focused their eyes on their parents, she said.
While in Fort Knox she met her current husband Rhea Taylor, also a widower, and a father of three. The two soon married and made a life together in Bowling Green.
Her husband went into the insurance business and Pearl followed. With a voracious appetite for learning, she took every certification class that she could to learn as much as possible about the insurance business. She raised her children, volunteered in the community and worked with her husband.
"In my heart, that goal was still churning," she said about getting her bachelor's degree.
Taylor impressed on her children the importance of getting a college education.
"We've got four generations of Taylors who have graduated from here," Rhea Taylor said.
During the 20-year period of attending classes, Pearl Taylor retired from the insurance business, got two knees replaced, had back surgery and battled cancer. Through it all she always kept her eye on the prize.
"My heart is jumping with joy," Taylor said.
During her educational journey, her friends and family have cheered her on.
"Pearl would tell us she had a big test coming up and we would pray for her," said her friend Martha Morgan.
She also made some friends along the way.
Katie Glauber, a junior from Mount Washington, took Spanish with Taylor this year. It was Taylor's most challenging class.
"At the beginning of the semester we would stay after class for 30 minutes and we would go over whatever we had done. The second half of the semester, I didn't have time to do that, but I still sat next to her. She bought me food. The other day she took me and the other girl who had helped her out to lunch," Glauber said.
"She tried harder than most of the kids in that class," Glauber said. "She would study every night for hours.
"It was very impressive. She had a lot of dedication.
"We had a little group of friends and there was another nontraditional student who was a 30-year-old mother with two kids. We would sit out on the couch before class and just talk. We were the Pearl Protection Squad."
On Saturday, Taylor's family and friends gathered to watch her graduate. She counted about 25 people in all who came to celebrate with her.
"I've been teasing her about what she's going to do with her time," Rhea Taylor said. "She's going to be lost not spending so much time studying."
— Follow Assistant City Editor Deborah Highland on Twitter @BGDNCrimebeat or visit bgdailynews.com.