A long time coming: Student returns to Central State University to earn her degree at age 82

By Alissa Paolella, Communications Manager
Posted May 16 2024
arline flournoy at age 82 wearing regalia on her 2024 graduation day at the football stadium at central state university

Above: Arline Taylor Flournoy, 82, graduated with the Class of 2024 at the Commencement Ceremony on May 11 at Central State University.

Arline Taylor Flournoy stood next to her Central State University classmates at William Patrick McPherson Memorial Stadium on May 11. Tears welled in her eyes and a knot formed in her throat. This graduation was a long time coming — over six decades, in fact. 

Flournoy will turn 83 on July 6, but she had another milestone to check off her list first — graduating from college. Finally, Flournoy has transitioned from a Marauder to a Centralian, joining her husband, Rochel Flournoy, Esq., who graduated in 1963. 

“You never know what you’re capable of doing until you try,” Flournoy said in a recent interview just before Commencement. 

Growing up in Washington, D.C., Flournoy attended then-Central State College in 1959 to study Secretarial Administration and Office Administration. During her time there, Flournoy was named Miss Photogenic in 1960. She was also an ROTC Company C Sweetheart and a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc.  

black and white photo of a young african american woman named as miss photogenic coed in a college yearbook
Arline Taylor Flournoy, pictured in the 1960 Central State University yearbook, was named Most Photogenic Coed.

Due to financial constraints, Flournoy withdrew from the University in 1961. However, she went on to have a successful career, serving in administrative roles for the U.S. House of Representatives, the District of Columbia City Council (Ward 5), the U.S. Departments of Energy and the Interior, and the University of Illinois Medical Center. Flournoy also owned her own medical supply company.  

Her first administrative role was with Dr. Charles H. Wesley, then-President of Central State University. Despite leaving college early, Flournoy always knew she would return to complete her bachelor’s degree. 

“It was a matter of timing,” she said. “I was a single mom. ... Once Rochel and I married, we did a lot of traveling, but it was still not the right time. It was still in the back of my mind. Rochel kept saying, ‘I’ll pay for it if you go back.’ I thought, ‘Yes, but I’m still doing things. I’m not ready.’  

“But then the pandemic struck, and it was perfect timing because we weren’t going anywhere. We really weren’t doing anything socially. And I felt this was the perfect time, and it was because I knew I wanted to be active.”  

Some of the first people Flournoy talked to about her decision were members of her virtual book club.

"Even then, we were Zooming. We didn’t have a house-to-house book club,” she recalled. “I said, ‘This is the perfect time for me to tell you and segway into saying I’m not hosting book club this month.’ They looked and said, ‘Why?’ I said, ‘I’m going back to school.’ Everybody started clapping." 

Flournoy’s family was an impetus for returning to college as a Central State Global student after all these years.  

“It was also my daughter who said, ‘Mom, I would love for you to be one of us,’” Flournoy recalled.

"'Your mother got her degree. I got my degree, and Taylor’ — my granddaughter — ‘will be getting her degree from NYU. And I thought, ‘I’ve got to make this link and be a part of it.’ So, that was also one of the reasons that I wanted to finish. There will be four strong women with their degrees."

“I literally almost broke down and cried when I finished my last time signing in on the computer. I hadn’t felt joy until coming to campus because I really hadn’t thought about coming at all. ... All I wanted was to know that I got the piece of paper and that I had earned it. But now that I’m here, I am glad that I came.”  

Since retiring in 2004, Flournoy and her husband built a home in southwest Florida and embarked upon a new lifestyle. They traveled the world, visiting Europe, Scandinavia, the Mediterranean, Africa, Thailand, China, Singapore, and Russia.  

Flournoy was inspired by her travels and launched her own line of arts and crafts, particularly the Nouveau Ladies Art by Arline. Her products are sold at art shows, stores, and studios in southwest Florida.  

The following Q&A was conducted on May 10, the day before the 2024 Commencement Ceremony. It has been edited for clarity and length. 

Q: Tell me about when and where you were born and where you grew up.  

A: I was born on July 6, 1941, at Columbia Hospital for Women in Washington, D.C. I grew up in my elementary through high school years in Washington, D.C., and I went to public schools. Public schools then were very good.  

Q: Being from D.C., how did you hear about Central State University here in Wilberforce?  

A: Fortunately, I had an older cousin who attended Wilberforce University. She talked about the school. Her mother was a schoolteacher, and my cousin, Celeste, who went to Wilberforce, was also a schoolteacher. So, I guess they thought that was where I wanted to go and be a teacher — but I never wanted to be a nurse nor a schoolteacher. My profession started out in secretarial administration because D.C. is a place where government employees could easily find a position and work. 

Q: You shared earlier that your father was also a big influence in your decision.  

A: He was the influence. I had no choice because back then, your parents pretty much dictated what you were going to do and where you were going to go. 

Q: What was it like going from D.C. to Wilberforce? 

A: D.C. is not really a big city in a sense because everybody pretty much knew everyone. It was in a quad kind of city, where northeast, northwest, southeast, southwest — the division line was North Capitol/East Capitol, and the Capitol was the center. So, if you went outside of those districts, you had reason. You had relatives or friends who lived in other sections. But coming from D.C. to Wilberforce, I was coming to the country. For me, as a city girl, all I saw were cornfields when I drove off (Ohio) 42 into Central. But once we got here, it was beautiful — just beautiful. 

group black and white photo of a student court at central state university in the 1960s
Flournoy (first row, second from right) served on the Student Court during her first years at Central State.

Q: You worked under the renowned Dr. Charles H. Wesley. What was that experience like? 

A: I was a student aid for two years under Dr. Wesley. The day that my father and I drove from D.C. to Ohio, we came on campus, and we got an audience with Dr. Wesley. My father was one of those very progressive people who introduced himself. My great-grandfather was the second minister of Shiloh Baptist Church. Dr. Wesley knew him, so that was the impetus for my being able to land a job in his office. From there, I enjoyed working with him. I took shorthand; I opened his mail. I did everything that a student was allowed to do. We had to type his speeches and even letters. He was a person who you looked up to because he was the President of the University. And he was a very kind man and a very handsome man.  

He had a very resounding voice when he spoke. He was a great orator. You listened. It was a nice experience because it also opened the door for me to have other positions. 

Q: The Candlelight Ceremony is a memorable event for first-year students. Do you recall your experience?  

A: I absolutely recall my experience, and I was really happy to know that they still do it. We walked from Galloway Hall (the site of the current Office of Alumni Relations and the iconic Alumni Tower) through the Sunken Garden and back to our dorm. Your light was to stay on and stay lit for that entire period. My candle went out, and I was crushed. But I turned around. I don’t know who was on either side, but I got another light and lit my candle. From there, I was able to go back to the dorm with my candle lit.  

It’s kind of a metaphor for my life. I did have a pause, but the light came back on, and I finished. It’s a beautiful ceremony, and it may not mean the same to everybody, but it really meant a lot to me. 

Q: Why did you leave Central State University in 1961? 

A: I left in 1961 because I had financial problems, and I needed to work. Student aid wasn’t going to do it all the way, so that was when I left. 

an older woman wearing sunglasses and graduation regalia holds her central state university diploma during commencement
Flournoy holds her college diploma at Commencement, an incredible accomplishment that was over six decades in the making.

Q: When did you meet your husband?  

A: We met in 1959. He also was a student here at Central State. We were in the same class, but we were just friends. We never thought about anything romantic during that era. But we were very close friends.  

Q: How did you reunite later? 

A: I (was living) in Chicago, and from there, I moved back home (to D.C.). I didn’t know that Rochel was living in D.C. at the time. But Central has friends all throughout any city you go to. One of our mutual friends let me know that he was having a party, and would I like to attend? I said, of course. I didn’t know he was here. We kept in touch, and we always were friends. It just blossomed. We worked not far from one another. His office was within walking distance. So, we would meet for lunch.  

Then, we started dating. We dated for 14 years before he asked me to marry him. 

Q: When did you get married?  

A: May 2, 1992. The way he proposed was really different. We were to go to a play at the Kennedy Center and — at least this is what he told me — we were going to have dinner first. So, we had dinner and he said, ‘Would you like dessert?’ And I said, ‘Sure.’ This waiter came over with a dome, a silver dome, and a platter. He sat it down in front of me. I turned around waiting for him to take the dome off. He said, ‘No, you, madam.’ So, I took the dome off and there was a red rose, an engagement ring, and a beautiful card. I looked at the waiter and I looked back. This wasn’t my dessert! I was just shocked. Then, everybody in the restaurant started clapping. I was just stunned. Then, we had a gentleman who stood beside me with a violin who played “Evergreen” because Rochel knew that was my favorite song.  

Q: What advice would you give to any student, traditional or nontraditional, older or younger, about completing their degree?  

A: It is so personal that that person has to really want and have the desire. I think it’s important that they follow their dream, they follow their love of something because it’s an individual choice. I’ve had a couple people come up to me today and say, ‘You have inspired me.’ And I said, ‘I am happy that I did, because you will want to have to want to do it. Nobody can make you do it. If it’s what you really want to do, it can be done.’