Diaries through the decades: Betty Stoltman counts her blessings

Ms. Doolittle, Ms. Mooney, Jerry Zarno, Father Muckle and Dr. Chapin - these are names Betty Stoltman will never forget.

The names are representative of different stages in her life, stages she made extraordinary by her capacity to learn. These names, and the clarity in which she remembers them, represent a mind that has not been blunted throughout her 84 years, but sharpened.

When Stoltman was too young to go to school, she said she felt it unfair that her siblings could go without her. She pleaded with her mother and, after much effort, was enrolled in first grade at age four. Stoltman began her education early and has not looked back since. "I zipped right along," she said. "I loved learning and I could learn anything."

In seventh grade, her teacher wrote a letter to a local high school - 15 minutes from Geneseo - stating that Stoltman had already learned everything it was possible to teach, and that she should be put in an older age bracket. The principal of the high school interviewed her, asking if she felt she would be able to pass the New York State Regents Exams without taking any of the classes. Smiling, Stoltman recalled her answer: "I said, 'who knows? You should try anything once!'"

Stoltman passed all her exams and went through high school without difficulty, despite being much younger than her peers, and graduated in 1942. Though she could not afford to attend college immediately, Stoltman eventually went to Rochester Business Institute. She excelled, and was given a job at Kodak before she even graduated. 

For 38 years, Stoltman worked as a secretary for some of the highest names in the corporation and, recognizing her potential, they sent her to continue her education at Rochester Institute of Technology and the University of Rochester.

"As I look back on it, I wonder, you know … I don't know why I had to go so far ahead all the time," she said. The answer may lie in the fact that throughout her life, people could not ignore Stoltman's great capacity for learning. She impressed them, however, in more than just a professional sense. 

In 1949, Stoltman was in a car accident that left her with a fractured skull and cerebral hemorrhage. Her doctors were sure she would not survive. But as she showed improvement, Kodak called to England for a renowned brain specialist. He came to her aid and eventually she recovered. Stoltman also made an impression on the specialist - when he died, he willed $100,000 to her church.

People still recognize Stoltman as being extraordinary. On the outside, she seems very much like any other woman. She reads about history, she plays bridge (with expert finesse) and is looking forward to the coming Christmas holiday. When people begin to see her mind, however, they know she is special. People regularly ask Stoltman to pray for them because they see something extra that cannot be explained. 

As for Stoltman, she simply learns by watching the world around her, just like she always has. "Observation is a lot, you know … I don't think people pay that much attention to it, but it is."