ST. LOUIS (AP) -- Considering what Ken Wilde has lived through, it isn't surprising he has a good grasp of history. At 86, he's lived enough of it, and through some of the worst of it.
Maybe that helps explain how Wilde was a straight-A student, except for a lone A-minus, as he earned his master's degree in history at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. He will be the university's oldest-ever master's graduate when he gets the diploma Saturday.
"I'm proof it's never too late to go back to school," Wilde said. "But I don't recommend people wait this long."
Considering the circumstances, the six-decade delay in Wilde's education is understandable.
He was born Klaus Weiss and grew up in Berlin, where his father ran a family clothing store. But after the Nazis took control of Germany in 1933, "it became almost impossible for a Jewish-owned store to exist," Wilde said.
The family sold the store in 1938, just weeks before the Kristallnacht, or "Night of the Broken Glass," an attack on Jewish people and their homes, businesses and synagogues. Over two nights, 91 Jews were killed and up to 30,000 were rounded up, many placed in concentration camps.
Knowing their lives were in danger, the family sought out refuge for Wilde and his brother. Wilde was among some 10,000 German children, mostly Jews, sent to live in the United Kingdom to avoid German persecution through a program called Kindertransport. At 15, he found himself living in England with a new family, leaving his loved ones behind.
"They said from the start they could not pay for my education -- that's why it was delayed," Wilde said.
Still, he was grateful for the family -- and for the nation -- that took him in.
"I couldn't wait to be 18 to join the army," he said. "I wanted to do my bit to thank England for what they did for me, probably saving me from at least concentration camp."
Once in the army, Wilde changed his name for his protection, and for the protection of his family, in case he was captured by the Germans.
Wilde was stationed in Germany in 1945 when he learned that his parents and brother were still there. Efforts to find an English refuge for his brother had fallen through. But the family had avoided concentration camp and survived in part by doing slave labor -- cleaning rubble out of bombed-out buildings and other menial tasks.
The family had a former neighbor who fled to St. Louis during the war. With its large German population, St. Louis seemed a good place to settle after the war. Wilde's parents and brother moved here in 1946, and he joined them a year later. Not long after that, he met Eve, also a native of Berlin who was saved by the Kindertransport. They married in 1951.
As a boy, Wilde had always assumed he would go to college. "But times were so unusual, it wasn't in the cards," he said.
Once in St. Louis, he quickly found work with the department store company Stix, Baer and Fuller (now Dillard's). He started as a salesman and worked his way up through buyer, then purchasing manager.
After retiring in 1989, Eve convinced Wilde to join her with a few classes at a community college. A professor convinced him to take the courses for credit.
Eventually, Wilde moved on to the University of Missouri-St. Louis and began closing in on his bachelor's degree. He earned it in history in 2006 at age 83, and decided to get his master's.
"Ken's life experiences are unusual, to say the least," said Andrew Hurley, chairman of the Department of History. "His presence has certainly enriched the classroom experience for both faculty and students alike."
Wilde said he got along great with his classmates, most of them 60 years his junior.
"I didn't go to beer parties or anything like that," he laughed. "But as far as working and studying with other students, I never had the feeling that I was out of place."
The seniors lobby AARP said there are a growing number of older people not only going back to college but earning degrees. Among them was Nola Ochs, who was 95 when she got her bachelor's in general studies at Fort Hays State University in Kansas in 2007. She is believed to be the nation's oldest-ever college grad.
"People are not only living longer, but they're staying healthy and vital longer," said Nancy Graham, editor of AARP's magazine. "Now, people in their 80s and 90s are very interested in going to school to learn and in some cases even earn a degree because they're healthy enough to do so."
Wilde is putting his education to use, serving as a mentor for a literacy program. Some professors have prodded him to go the final step -- a Ph.D. -- but Wilde feels like his days in the classroom are over.
"There comes a time when you have to say enough's enough," he said. "Obviously, I'm not planning another career, but I'd like to think the education will make my life more meaningful."
When Wilde gets his degree on Saturday, his three children and seven grandchildren will be there to see it. With just that single A-minus to blemish his otherwise perfect grade point average, Wilde is graduating summa cum laude, just as he did with his bachelor's.
"Life has been pretty good," he said. "It was a difficult start, but many people had a much harder time than I did."
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
APTV 12-18-09 1144CST