An Incomparable Gift

Story by Debra Holtz

Photos by Dan Rosenstrauch


Dr. Clifford Straehley's first class as a Saint Mary's College undergraduate completely changed his understanding of the teachings of Jesus. Raised as an Episcopalian and now a practicing Buddhist, Straehley says his scientific training to become a surgeon had made him reject the "magical and mystical" aspects of Christianity.

"Jesus was on a mission to champion the cause of the marginalized," Straehley now believes. "He had a genuine love for humanity, justice and peace."

That lesson would be the first of many the 84-year-old retired surgeon and medical professor learned while completing his bachelor's degree at Saint Mary's. On May 20, six decades after graduating from medical school, Straehley stood in line with more than 700 other undergraduates to receive his diploma. He also served as the keynote speaker at the College's 143rd Commencement.

"It was a gift of incomparable value for this old man to be granted the stimulation that comes from exposure to youthful minds," Straehley said in his speech.

At an age when many people are content to relax and enjoy the benefits of retirement, Straehley decided in 2003 to pursue his lifelong dream of finishing his undergraduate studies.

Straehley was a student at the University of Michigan when the United States entered World War II. With the Army in need of doctors, Straehley left college after his junior year to attend Harvard Medical School. He later fulfilled his military obligation by serving as chief of surgery at an Army medical center in West Germany.

In 1962, Straehley moved to Honolulu, where he spent 30 years practicing thoracic surgery at Kaiser Hospital and holding faculty positions at the University of Hawaii and Stanford Medical Schools.

Determined to keep his mind sharp when he retired at age 70, Straehley devoted his time to intellectual pursuits and joined a Great Books program near his Rossmoor home with his wife of 62 years, Marnie. But he says he didn't feel complete without his undergraduate degree. On the recommendation of his daughter, a part-time lecturer at Saint Mary's, Straehley applied to the College because of its small classes and liberal arts reputation, becoming the oldest undergraduate in the institution's history.

"It was a marvelous decision," he says.

Along the way, a course in Gender Politics that Straehley took from Professor Patrizia Longo led the two to collaborate on a research project about gender discrimination faced by female surgeons. So far, Straehley and Longo have published three academic papers based on the results of a survey they conducted of 100 female surgeons. They hope to expand their research into a book.

"Cliff has been a source of inspiration for me," Longo says. "I hope I can be like him when I reach his age, so full of life, love, energy, 'spunk,' political commitment and wisdom.

In his Commencement address, Straehley thanked Longo for helping him achieve "a fuller appreciation of the other half of humanity." He also told his fellow graduates that age brings not only wisdom but physical dilapidation. He offered them hints on how "to diminish the inroad of the years and to enjoy a vigorous decline." Among his advice:

  • "Forge for yourself an occupation that is creative and satisfying."
  • "Seek a soul mate, one who will become a cherished, lifelong companion."
  • "Take the stumbling blocks you will inevitably encounter as you go through life in stride. The challenge is to change them into stepping stones."
  • "Do not dread old age. Look forward to it and prepare for it. It will bring its own rewards."