Its never too late for learning, 94-year-old graduate discovers

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CHICAGO — Sam Janus always admired folks with an education. So he decided to get one.

At age 94, Janus just graduated from Oakton Community College in Des Plaines, Ill.

Pulling out a paper assignment he wrote on the history of the 20th century, he says, "I've lived through most of it."

Like many Jewish immigrants who arrived here from Eastern Europe around the beginning of this century, Janus had to plunge straight into the working world after grammar school. In his case, it was Washburne Grammar School, from which he graduated in 1918 at age 14.

But after a lifetime of work, in men's furnishings for over a decade and then selling jewelry for another 40 years, Janus decided to do what life had never allowed: go back to school.

"I've always admired people who had an education. I wanted to follow in their footsteps," he said.

Which was why, at the age of 82, he completed his high school equivalency from Truman College, and went on to work toward his associate's degree in liberal arts from Oakton, the culmination of nine years of work. He took one class each quarter.

Ever the optimist, Janus now is planning to attend Northeastern Illinois University in the fall, to finally get that college degree.

Interviewed in his spacious one-bedroom apartment, his self-dubbed "bachelor pad" in Lincolnwood Place, a Jewish retirement home, Janus asks, "So, what do you want to know? Shoot."

After all, he has lived through nearly an entire century.

He came to Chicago from the Ukraine in 1912, when he was 7, with his father, who was avoiding being drafted into the Russo-Japanese War.

They sailed steerage class in a ship that took more than three weeks to cross the ocean. His family — they later sent for his mother and young brothers — eventually settled in the Maxwell Street area, the "Jewish ghetto." They lived in a fourth-floor walk-up with no bath. To wash, they had go down the block to the public bathhouse.

But to begin to chronicle everything he's lived through, or to talk about how the world has changed over the past 90 years, is not something Janus has time to do.

"If I were to give you the details of how I got here and why it would take all afternoon," he said. He settled in his current apartment seven years ago after the death of his wife of 60 years.

Asked if he has advice for today, Janus can only shrug.

"Advice? We're all put together in such different ways," he finally manages. "A lot of people don't get along with anyone. I'm an extrovert, I make friends very easily, I'm always kibitzing and joking."

If a secret to Janus' life must be extracted, humor and affability are certainly it. He's a big joke-teller, often delivering his punch lines completely poker-faced, with only the twinkle in his eye giving it away.

When asked if he's planning a party for his graduation, he responds, "Sure," and adds, without missing a beat, "I've hired out the Chicago stadium."

Beneath the humor, however, Janus reveals a questioning soul, one that stands before God and implores, why?

"Often times I wonder, where is the justice? Here I am alive, and my two younger brothers are gone," he says.

For even though he grew up a "semi-religious young man," attending a yeshiva on the old West Side and practicing Jewish traditions, he says that "things happened along the road to make people think.

"I've asked these questions several times. Why, if we're the chosen people, were 6 million killed? Why create a man like Hitler? Why would a couple of kids shoot down 13 people?" he asks, referring to the recent shooting rampage in Littleton, Colo.

Facing the end of his life, Janus doesn't seem to want to weigh himself down with such overwhelming questions.

After all, he has his family nearby, a daughter and son-in-law, four grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren. He has his studying, his excursions to the library to "dig" for books, his workouts at the gym.

Always the sports enthusiast, he still works out three times a week at the Bernard Horwich Jewish Community Center in West Rogers Park, lifting weights and keeping fit the old- fashioned, calisthenics way. He even taught an exercise class there not long ago, before people started to drop off.

"They started to die, or move to Florida," he says. Exercising is par for the course for this former amateur boxer.

"I weighed 135 pounds then and weigh 135 now," he says. Short and trim, and wearing thick glasses, he still cuts a dapper figure, impeccably dressed in a checked shirt and gray dress pants.

He describes today's world as "techno-savvy, violent, often ruthless.

"It was a much better world when I got here. We didn't have the turmoil, the killings. When I was 14, we'd get into fights, but we didn't use guns," he says.

Looking ahead, he says, "I'm not afraid to die. I've lived a long life. I'm very fortunate. I have things to look forward to. You must remember, I am now living on bonus years, my plans are from day to day. I'm fortunate to go to the gym and take workouts, and I hope to stay healthy until I check out."