Mother of 14 earns bachelor's degree with honors at Tennessee Tech

In 1954, at the age of 17, Janet Spicer (then Janet Nichols) knew exactly what she wanted to do with her life: get married and raise a family. Despite her parents' urging to attend college and further her education, she refused, married Charles Spicer, and together they raised 14 children. "I was just not interested in learning," she says.

That changed, however, and Spicer, at the age of 59, earned her bachelor's degree in English with a concentration in technical communication from Tennessee Technological University during spring commencement earlier this month. Among the family on hand for the occasion were 10 of her 13 surviving children.

"I really enjoy learning now. I'm glad I didn't go then, even though my parents really wanted me to go. I have three sisters, and two of them went to college but didn't finish, so I'm the first child in my family to graduate."

The Pikeville resident says when all her children had grown and started setting off on their own, she found herself cleaning houses for a living. "I knew I didn't want to do that for the rest of my life, so I asked the Lord what he wanted me to do. He told me to go back to school," she says.

Spicer had home-schooled her eight youngest children because she was unhappy with the quality of education they were receiving through the public school system. "We always had such a hard time finding information," she notes. "All the things we wanted to know about, no one knew how to find."

That frustration motivated her to seek a major that would help her find and organize information, so she chose technical communication. She plans to continue her education at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, where she has been awarded a graduate teaching assistantship to pursue a master's degree in information science.

"Technical communication was just what I was looking for," she says. "That program and the Society for Technical Communication were the best things that ever happened to me as far as my education goes."

Spicer served as president of Tennessee Tech's student chapter of the Society for Technical Communication for the 1996-97 year. As a member of the group, she worked on a student handbook that won the society's 1995 Pacesetter Award. In 1996, the group won one of two Chapter Achievement Awards given by the society that year.

Going back to school wasn't easy, Spicer admits. During her first semester, she lived in a dorm for a while, until her husband underwent surgery to have his leg amputated. For the rest of the school year, she commuted to school from Pikeville. In her second year, she returned to live in the dorms.

"It was O.K., but noisy at times. I'm an 'early-to-bedder,' and that didn't go over big, but I learned to sleep through anything. By the time I started school, I was mature enough to put up with anything, so dorm life didn't bother me. There are a lot of things you don't like, but that doesn't mean you can't put up with them." After two years, the scholarship that paid for Spicer's dorm housing ran out, so she stayed with a friend in Cookeville a few nights a week.

Night classes were among her most difficult challenges, she says. "I'm used to going to sleep when it gets dark. My brain just shuts off." Another challenge was homesickness, something usually associated with younger students fresh out of high school. "I didn't like being away from home - I'm a real homebody! Would you believe I missed housecleaning?!"

Despite a busy schedule that included taking four years' worth of honors courses in the three years she went to Tennessee Tech - and graduating in cursu honorum with a quality point average of 3.8 - Spicer made her mark in several extracurricular activities. She was an active member of the Nontraditional Students Organization at Tennessee Tech and wrote for the student newspaper, "The Oracle," for most of her three years.

She was also a member of Phi Kappa Phi interdisciplinary honor society, Omicron Delta Kappa leadership honor society, Sigma Tau Delta English honor society and the Society for Collegiate Journalists, as well as secretary of Academics and Issues for the Student Government Association. She is listed in "Who's Who Among Students in American Colleges and Universities." The College of Arts and Sciences named her an Outstanding Technical Communication student for 1997, and she was the first Tennessee Tech student to be awarded membership in the Society for Technical Communication's honor society, Sigma Tau Chi.

She jokes, "What I learned in college was how to overcommit!"

Of her children, the two who have college degrees earned them later in life than the average student. "They encouraged me. I probably wouldn't have even thought of going back to school if they hadn't!" Two others are currently enrolled in college.

Four of her children live in Pikeville: David, Joshua, Samuel and Janet (Pawley); Paul lives in Crossville, and Joanna (Thompson) lives in Spencer, Tenn. The rest have spread out around the country, with Mark, Matthew, Cheri (Neill) and Melanie (Gordon) all settled in Burlington, Vt. Eve (Collins) lives in Broad Brook, Conn.; Michael lives in Marietta, Ga., and Charles III lives in Reno, Nev.

Spicer was born in Ashland, Ky., to Dorothy and Harry Nichols. The family moved to the Washington, D.C., area when Spicer was four years old. Spicer graduated from Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, Md., in 1954. Harry Nichols died in 1996; Dorothy Nichols now lives in Bradenton, Fla.

As she prepares to begin the next phase of her education, Spicer offers these words of wisdom: "I have been advising everyone to go back to school as long as they are smart enough to know that teachers don't know everything. You have to be able to think for yourself."