'Renaissance Man Earns Ninth Degree'

  • June 11, 2005

A military draft curtailed Daniel Oxman's college career about 64 years ago. And although he became a dentist without a bachelor's degree after World War II, it bothered him for years that he didn't have one.

The 85-year-old Castro Valley resident has more than made up for the educational shortcomings of his youth: This morning, he will receive a master's in English - his seventh degree from California State University, East Bay, and his ninth total.

"I didn't intend to go to school this long," Oxman said during an interview in the university library, where students a quarter his age studied for final exams. "I started, and it was like an addiction."

Although Oxman studied electrical engineering and oral surgery in his younger years, he leaned toward the humanities as he grew older. In his 50s he earned his first bachelor's degree in history from the then California State University, Hayward. After that it was philosophy. History again. Renaissance Reformation. Comparative religion. Art. English.

Each discipline piqued his interest in another, he said. And the over-60 program for seniors at the university made it easier to pull it off, financially. With tuition under $40 a quarter, he said, "it cost me more to park my car here than it did to go to school."

At 72, he began working toward a doctorate at the California Institute of Integral Studies. His daughter, San Rafael resident Mollee Sue Zoken, said he missed Passover dinner one year to do research for his thesis at a Buddhist monastery.

"His school work was always important to him," Zoken said. "Sometimes it would be a little frustrating. On the other hand, it was pretty neat."

Before he retired in 1989, Oxman closed his dental office for about two hours each afternoon and headed to class. He took other courses at night. Until recently, Zoken said, her father was pulling all-nighters.

Once, when he got an A-minus, he was so embarrassed that he tried to hide his report card from his family, she said.

But while some might balk at diving into a field they know little about, that is precisely what draws him in.

Oxman's eyes lighted up behind his large glasses when he spoke of the classes he had taken, from sculpting to Chinese history, and how they've helped him - an avid traveler - to better understand the world.

He said he hasn't felt the least bit awkward in classrooms with students decades his junior. "I don't feel any different," he said. " Sitdown, listen to the teacher, do the homework, like everybody else."

Though his mind is still sharp, getting around isn't so easy for him, especially after a fall two years ago that damaged discs in his lower back. Last quarter, his English professor, Jacqueline Doyle, arranged to have him study at home and send his work to her by e-mail.

He is really quite remarkable," Doyle said. "He's very interested in literature, very interested in life, a traveler, a thinker."

Still, Oxman claims this degree might be his last. "I've been going to school here for 37 years," he said, with a quiet chuckle. "You'd think I'd know enough to finish."

But he spoke more than once of the vacuum he feels when he's not taking courses - especially since his wife, Fritzie, died 15 years ago. And despite his doubts about his energy and strength, he didn't seem quite ready to put his education to rest.

Poetry, he said. People rave about it. What is it all about?

And then there's classical music. "I don't know much about it," he said. "I'd like to find out what makes music tick."

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