Meet Italy's oldest student, surviving WW2 and a pandemic to graduate at 96

Meet Italy's oldest student, surviving WW2 and a pandemic to graduate at 96

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At 96, Giuseppe Paterno has faced many tests in life - childhood poverty, war and, more recently, the coronavirus pandemic. Now he has sailed through an exam that makes him Italy's oldest university graduate.

This week, the former railway worker stepped forward to receive his diploma and the traditional laurel wreath awarded to Italian students when they graduate, applauded by his family, teachers and fellow students more than 70 years his junior.

. Palermo, Italy. Reuters/Guglielmo Mangiapane
Paterno celebrates with his family after graduating.

"I am a normal person, like many others," he said, when asked what it felt like to be graduating so late. "In terms of age I have surpassed all the others but I didn't do it for this."

. Palermo, Italy. Reuters/Guglielmo Mangiapane
. Palermo, Italy. Reuters/Guglielmo Mangiapane

Left: Paterno is helped by his son Ninni Paterno, 72, to get up from his bed.
Right: Philosophy books belonging to Paterno stand on a shelf at his home.

Already in his 90s when he enrolled for a degree in History and Philosophy at the University of Palermo, Paterno grew up loving books, but he never had the chance to study.

"I said, 'that's it, now or never,' and so in 2017, I decided to enrol," he told Reuters in his apartment in the Sicilian city of Palermo, which he rarely leaves nowadays due to his frailty.

. Palermo, Italy. Reuters
Paterno is awarded his graduation certificate.

"I understood that it was a little late to get a three-year degree but I said to myself 'let's see if I can do it'."

On Wednesday, he graduated first in his class with top honours, receiving congratulations from the university chancellor Fabrizio Micari.

. Palermo, Italy. Reuters/Guglielmo Mangiapane
An old photograph of Paterno dressed as a sailor at his elementary school in 1933, is pictured in Paterno's home.

Growing up in a poor family in Sicily in the years before the Great Depression, Paterno received only basic schooling as a child. He joined the navy and served during World War Two before going on to work in the railways as he married and brought up two children.

In a society focused on rebuilding after the war, work and family were the priorities, but Paterno wanted to learn and graduated from high school at the age of 31, always harbouring a desire to go further.

"Knowledge is like a suitcase that I carry with me, it is a treasure," he said.

. Palermo, Italy. Reuters/Guglielmo Mangiapane
. Palermo, Italy. Reuters/Guglielmo Mangiapane

Left: Paterno uses his typewriter.
Right: Paterno goes over his study notes at his desk, a day before he graduates.

As a student, he tapped out his essays on the manual typewriter his mother gave him when he retired from the railways in 1984. He eschewed Google in favour of printed books and was not tempted by the late-night student parties of his 20-year-old classmates, who applauded him warmly at the graduation ceremony.

"You are an example for younger students," his Sociology professor, Francesca Rizzuto, told him after he passed his final oral examination in June.

. Palermo, Italy. Reuters/Antonio Parrinello
Paterno takes his final exam online on a computer at home.

Paterno confessed to a little unease with the video calls that replaced classroom teaching during the coronavirus shutdown, but said he was not put off by the disease itself after the war and everything else he had been through in life.

"All of that strengthened us, all of my peer group, all of those who are still alive," he said. "It didn't really scare us that much."

. Palermo, Italy. Reuters/Guglielmo Mangiapane
Paterno celebrates with his family after graduating from his undergraduate degree.

As for what he planned to do next, he said he was not about to stop now he had graduated.

"My project for the future is to devote myself to writing; I want to revisit all the texts I didn't have a chance to explore further. This is my goal."

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Slideshow

Vintage radios sit on the bedside table of Paterno.
. Palermo, Italy. Reuters/Guglielmo Mangiapane

Vintage radios sit on the bedside table of Paterno.

Paterno shaves his beard as he gets ready for the day.
. Palermo, Italy. Reuters/Guglielmo Mangiapane

Paterno shaves his beard as he gets ready for the day.

Paterno has breakfast in his kitchen.
. Palermo, Italy. Reuters/Guglielmo Mangiapane

Paterno has breakfast in his kitchen.

Paterno gestures to his carer as he stands in the hallway of his home.
. Palermo, Italy. Reuters/Guglielmo Mangiapane

Paterno gestures to his carer as he stands in the hallway of his home.

Paterno walks past a painting hung on the wall depicting his wedding day with his late wife Stefana Battaglia, who died in 2006, and Paterno.
. Palermo, Italy. Reuters/Guglielmo Mangiapane

Paterno walks past a painting hung on the wall depicting his wedding day with his late wife Stefana Battaglia, who died in 2006, and Paterno.

Paterno hugs a friend at a supermarket.
. Palermo, Italy. Reuters/Guglielmo Mangiapane

Paterno hugs a friend at a supermarket.

Paterno takes an elevator up to his apartment, as he returns home from the supermarket.
. Palermo, Italy. Reuters/Guglielmo Mangiapane

Paterno takes an elevator up to his apartment, as he returns home from the supermarket.

Paterno marks his graduation date on July 29 on his calendar, a day before he graduates.
. Palermo, Italy. Reuters/Guglielmo Mangiapane

Paterno marks his graduation date on July 29 on his calendar, a day before he graduates.

The University of Palermo stands before Paterno's graduation.
. Palermo, Italy. Reuters/Guglielmo Mangiapane

The University of Palermo stands before Paterno's graduation.

Paterno attends his graduation.
. Palermo, Italy. Reuters/Guglielmo Mangiapane

Paterno attends his graduation.

Paterno celebrates during his graduation.
. Palermo, Italy. Reuters/Guglielmo Mangiapane

Paterno celebrates during his graduation.

Paterno poses for the media as he attends his graduation.
. Palermo, Italy. Reuters/Guglielmo Mangiapane

Paterno poses for the media as he attends his graduation.