late to class

Jean Misutka spent decades raising five kids and taking care of aging parents and in-laws. Last May, at age 73, she received her master’s in legal studies from the University of Pittsburgh. /photo: George Mendel

She was a typical law school student: intelligent, motivated, driven and organized. She also was atypical—a grandparent, senior citizen and a handwritten-calendar keeper.

Jean Orben Misutka of Beverly Road earned a master’s of legal studies from the University of Pittsburgh in May at age 73. A mother of five and grandmother of nine, Misutka was encouraging one of her daughters to apply to law school when she decided to try for herself.

“Once I got admitted, I couldn’t not go,” says Misutka. “Once you start. you have to finish, and I had to prove I wasn’t a quitter.”

Misutka always has been an advocate for pursuing education, says one of her daughters, Colette Walsh of Illinois.  Mitsuka had earned a undergraduate degree in English literature at Duquesne University and an MBA from Carnegie Mellon University in public management when she was young.  Now widowed and with her family grown and gone, she was ready for a new educational challenge.

“There’s so much out there to learn,” she says. “The more you go to school, the more you find out what you don’t know.”

Her family supported her decision. “She has spent her entire adult life caring for children and aging parents. I think with some newfound freedom, she just really wanted to do something for herself,” Walsh says.

Misutka was inspired by her family and her fellow law students:

“When you’re around people who inspire you, you rise.”

  “I’m comforted in knowing that our country has a promising future,” says Misutka of the Pitt law students, most of whom were 40-plus years younger. “These kids are ethical, sharp, and ambitious. We are in good shape.”

One of Misutka’s favorite memories of law school is the first day. “I looked at the other students’ faces, and they were full of fear for the future,” she recalls. “I didn’t have that … I was
past all of that. This was going to be more fun.”

Occasionally Misutka was reminded she was different from the rest of the class, such as the time a professor announced a schedule change. “All the students took out their phones to put it in their calendars,” she says. “I took out my huge refrigerator-sized planner and the professor looks at me and says, ‘Wow you really are old-school, aren’t you?’”

After completing her degree, Misutka considered the different roads she could take. Recalling the difficulties  she had in 2004 when she had to handle all of the legal affairs after her husband’s death, she decided to focus on elder law, helping friends with end-of-life planning. “I needed something encouraging and uplifting,” she says. “Now I have knowledge that can help my friends.”

Reflecting on her mother’s decision to start a new career in her 70s, Walsh says she’s not surprised: “If anyone was to go to law school at 71, it would be my mom.”