She chose her classes based on whether she could park close. Although she would study like crazy for tests, she wasn’t really focused on her GPA. Sometimes she would repeat a sociology or literature class, but only because she thought she might learn something new.
Rona Loeb took classes at Illinois State for about 33 years. Sixty-eight semesters to be exact. It was all for the love of learning. Before she enrolled, she already had two master’s degrees. She decided not to register for classes this fall, a foreboding move to her family.
Loeb died at age 82 on August 28, the first week of the semester.
“She just loved going to school. She felt it kept her young,” said her daughter, Renee Loeb Major, of Naperville. “When she didn’t sign up for classes this year, I was devastated because I knew there was only one reason she wouldn’t.”
Loeb pushed through campus in a wheelchair, years after a stroke dampened her short-term memory. The former English teacher never stopped learning, questioning, or teaching, said her son, Jeff Loeb, of Bloomington. The native of New York City loved Broadway, museums in Paris, and mystery novels almost as much as feminism and her Jewish heritage.
She and her former husband of 25 years, Fred Loeb, owned a furniture store. As the bookkeeper, she had to take accounting classes, which bored her to death. After becoming single again in her late 40s, she went back to school for a master’s in social work and lived in a graduate dorm at the University of Illinois, across the street from the dorms where her son and daughter were living. Occasionally they’d study together, over pizza.
When she finished her degree, she returned to Bloomington and resumed classes at Illinois State for a very practical reason: She needed health insurance, and student insurance was cheap. She took whatever courses interested her, from psychopathology to drug counseling to Victorian literature.
English Professor Cynthia Huff taught Loeb for more than 10 years. “Rona was one of the most intellectually curious and intelligent people I’ve known,” Huff said. “Her range of knowledge was deep and broad. She did not suffer fools gladly and expressed her point of view forcefully and vigorously.”
She had a little trouble getting papers done because of her disdain for the computer. If she had to miss a class, students shared their notes with her. And they held doors open and helped her in and out of her blue Dodge Neon.
With a master’s in counseling and 30 years’ experience volunteering for a crisis hotline, Loeb helped fellow students too.
“She would adopt the kids in class if they had a problem,” her son said.
Her daughter remembered her mom as “the grandmother no one saw coming.” “She had the perfect grandma appearance, meek and frail. But, she was a fierce competitor. She would play Cards Against Humanity (think X-rated Apples to Apples) with the kids and their friends, and she always won.”
Loeb held her professors accountable for moving the class forward, her son said, just as she did when she taught Sunday school at a temple. At her funeral the story was told of the time she caught a boy playing with a yo-yo during a lesson. She confiscated it and told him he could have it back when he was married. On his wedding day, she returned it.
Loeb introduced her granddaughter, Becca Major, to campus when she was just a toddler. Loeb pushed Becca into classrooms in her stroller. By the time she was 12, she knew she was coming to Illinois State. A few hours after Becca went off to her English class last fall, her grandmother died. The devastating loss would have caused her to withdraw from any other campus.
“She waited for me to go to class before she passed away,” Major said, starting to cry. “Everyone has a special person, and she was mine.”
Kate Arthur can be reached at kaarthu@IllinoisState.edu.