Aggie septuagenarian earns BED
degree, starts master’s school in fall


When Shirley Ankenmann does her homework, she likes to listen to classical music on the radio. A few weeks before she was to graduate with a Bachelor of Environmental Design degree from Texas A&M’s College of Architecture, the 73-year old student heard “Pomp and Circumstance,” the traditional graduation song, come on the radio.

“My stomach just went in knots,” she said. “I wondered if I was going to be able to get across the stage without falling down and making a total fool of myself.”

There was to be no stumbling on her graduation day, however. She proudly walked across Texas A&M’s Reed Arena stage May 9, diploma in hand, to the cheers of her fellow College of Architecture students and faculty members.

“It was exciting because being an older woman, any time I went down a hallway to get to the bottom of Reed Arena, ladies and guys would just cheer me on,” she said. “It was really neat, and I met some very nice other architecture students.”

“Charles Culp and Robin Abrams were there when I came off the stage,” she said. “It was really important to me that some of the professors were wanting to see me get a diploma. It was just neat to have them there.”

Culp and Abrams are architecture professors at Texas A&M.

After the ceremony, her son Mike hosted a party for her at his house in College Station. His son, Michael, was at the party too—he’s also pursuing a Bachelor of Environmental Design degree and is planning to graduate next spring.

It’s not the end of Ankenmann’s education, however. She’s been accepted into the college’s Master of Architecure program, and will begin classes this fall. Being in school is something she loves—she prefers her twenty something year old peers in the academic environment to her seventy something year old peers in a grousing environment.

“You get around a bunch of old people and they all want to talk about their ailments,” she said. “They’ll say ‘I had my gall bladder out last year,’ or ‘I’ve got this scar that goes halfway around my you know what.’”

“I like the academic environment, because I feel real comfortable,” she said.  “I’m always wanting to learn something new, and I find that this is an outlet for me. It keeps my mind working.”

She’ll be earning a certificate in historic preservation along the way, since historic buildings are of special interest to her. One building in Bryan has already attracted her attention—Temple Freda, on 205 Parker Street.

“It was the first synagogue in the area,” she said. “Now, there are about three or four synagogues, but this was the first. That’s just something I think should be preserved. I’m halfway interested to talk with the Jewish community, which still owns the building, and see if they would like to try and restore it.”

The Greek Revival-style building, listed in the National Register of Historic Places since 1983, was built in 1912.

“I like the subject of restoring old buildings because of the historic record,” she said. “The buildings have a certain ambiance to the period they were built, and the craftsmanship is unmatched today.”

Ankenmann earned her acceptance into Texas A&M’s Master of Architecture program, said Robin Abrams, who was waiting for her after she received her diploma at Reed Arena.

“She was not given any special anything,” said Abrams. “Her application was very competitive. Students have to apply and compete with others from all over the world for a limited number of positions in the masters program,” she said.

After a successful career in drafting, Ankenmann came to College Station to help her son Mike and his wife care for their children while they started a new business, but she had more time on her hands than she thought she would.

“I was getting real bored,” she said. “I told my son ‘I think I’ll take a couple of architecture classes,’ so I did, and I aced ‘em,” she said. “Then I told him I’m going to go back to school and get my degree.”

“I had worked in engineering and architecture for over 45 years,” she said. “I was in school to strictly get the theory part down. Then they came to the environmental stuff like structures, like if you’re building something, what the breaking points of wood, metals, concrete are.”

“That’s what I wanted to get,” she continued. “I wanted to get the theories behind what I’d been doing all those years, and it was good. Real good.”

She was a pleasure to have in class, said Abrams.

“She has a very positive spirit, and is an inspiration to the other students,” said Abrams. “She’s not afraid of hard work.”

Ankenmann helped her fellow students gain a broader perspective during one of Abrams’ fourth-year architecture studios.

“She was on a team that was working to design a new sustainable community,” said Abrams. “She had a lot of experience with sustainable agriculture, did a lot of research, and brought a level of interest to the project that the students would not have found on their own.”

Ankenmann said taking a full course load was overwhelming, so she took two or three classes per semester.

“I started in 1999. See, it took me nine years,” she said, laughing. “But I have to say I took two summers off. I told my son it’s going to take me awhile, but I’m going to do it. And I have enjoyed it immensely.”

Not that there weren’t some bumps in the road to graduation day.

“They hit me with a requirement that I had to take kinesiology and a foreign language,” she said. “I found out that sign language substituted for a foreign language. Then I had to get in four semesters of kinesiology. So I went over there, and said ‘What have you got that I can take all at one time?’”

The answer: archery.

“I would get up and start my archery class at 8 in the morning and finish at 12:30 or 1 o’clock,” she said. “Three days a week. I was getting pretty good … I could almost keep up with the guys.”

She loved her architecture classes, but felt a good deal less affectionate for some of her electives.

“I had to take history, I had to take technical writing, all these horrible things, absolutely horrible, where I had to read. Now see, sign language was pretty good because I could describe things with my hands; I didn’t have to speak it. I have trouble speaking. I would much prefer to draw a picture for somebody.”

She had to take physics too.

“Oh, physics. Oh man. I don’t want to talk about it,” she said.

But, her undergraduate career and all those electives are behind her now so she can focus on her love of architecture.

Her favorite architect is Renzo Piano.

“I love him. I absolutely love him. His buildings are more like works of art than typical square buildings,” she said. “Everything he does is so unique. He does things in his designs you don’t think about doing. Nothing is standard, nothing is just regular.”

Piano won the Pritzker Architecture Prize, one of architecture’s highest honors, in 1998. Among his many designs worldwide are the Menil Collection in Houston (1987) and the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas (2003).

This fall, she’s looking forward to taking a class with College of Architecture faculty member Chanam Lee. “I’ve seen some of her work, and I’m very much impressed with her method of pulling out the creative depth of each student,” she said.

Graduate school is just the next remarkable chapter of a life that has included racing automobiles, learning to fly, being chased by a bear in Alaska, and surviving college physics. She’ll be back on campus this fall in an environment she loves, learning more about architecture.

- the end -


Shirley Ankenmann, 73, receives a gift from Tom Regan, former dean of Texas A&M’s College of Architecture, at the college’s honors and recognition ceremony May 9 at Preston Geren Auditorium. Looking on is Mark Clayton, then interim Department of Architecture head.

Shirley looks for a spot to photograph Temple Freda, the first Jewish synagogue in Bryan. She’s going to earn a certificate in historic preservation on her way to her Master of Architecture degree.
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