Meet Penelope Thurber, the 67-year-old college grad who set an Army deadlift record, survived strokes and fights for the underdog

An announcer rattled off the long list of Penelope Thurber’s accomplishments, and eyes around the Metropolitan State University of Denver veteran’s graduation ceremony widened.

A weightlifting phenom.

A trailblazer in the Army.

A low-income single mother and stroke survivor.

Heads turned to stare at the petite 67-year-old woman on stage at the St. Cajetan’s event center. She wore a sheepish grin and waved to the small crowd before accepting her college degree.

“You make sure the light within yourself is always shining,” Thurber said in an interview afterward. “Don’t let anybody take that shine out of you.”

Thurber described herself as “an overcomer.”

She survived a challenging childhood riddled with poverty and bullying. Her parents died by gun violence when she was a teen. Seeking stability, Thurber enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1973 when she was 18 and served for a decade, first as a combat medic, then a draftsman and a legal clerk with frontline duty guarding the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea.

“I was the only female in my units,” Thurber said.

While Thurber’s trying life is a testament to her emotional strength, her physical strength is not to be overshadowed. Thurber dazzled in the military’s boxing ring and medaled in powerlifting in the military equivalent of the Olympics with a record 301-pound deadlift.

When MSU Denver announced her athletic triumphs, jaws dropped at the graduation ceremony.

“I went to the gym all the time in the military because I wanted to stay away from smoking and drinking and drugs, so I really got in shape,” Thurber said.

After the Army, Thurber came back to Colorado, where she married and had three children. The marriage didn’t work out, and she found herself holding down multiple jobs to support her family.

Thurber couldn’t get a raise or promotion without a degree, she said. It was time to go back to school.

In 2015, Thurber began her pursuit of higher education, enrolling at the Community College of Aurora. She transferred to MSU Denver in 2017.

“Nobody thought I could do it,” Thurber said. “They said I was wasting my time going back to school. But I started, and as I got scholarships and had teachers encourage me, I thought, ‘If these people I’m not even close to are investing in me, why can’t I invest in myself?’ ”

Committed to her education but not entirely sure what to study, Thurber took advantage of MSU’s Veteran and Military Student Services Department and was offered vocational rehab.

“One thing that I think distinguished Penelope from many other students is how phenomenally she uses her resources on campus,” said Lauren Koppel, assistant director of scholarship support and retention at MSU Denver.

Thurber said a career test determined she would make an ideal counselor — someone focused on emotional, mental and spiritual wellness.

“I don’t want anybody to have to suffer like I did,” Thurber said. “I just have an empathy, especially for kids being bullied. I’ve been there. My passion is to help the underdog.”

Koppel had regular meetings with Thurber to discuss her scholarships, academic progress and connect her with resources she may need. During those meetings, Koppel said she learned Thurber had volunteered to tutor her neighbor’s children during the pandemic when remote learning kept kids from their school buildings.

“Penelope is always so generous with her time,” Koppel said.

At the height of COVID-19, Thurber suffered two major strokes.

“They told my kids I wasn’t going to live, and the hospital didn’t have room for me,” Thurber said. “I was sent home after four days. My kids were Googling how to take care of a stroke patient. I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t shower by myself. But I stayed in my classes. I only dropped out of one. And I got A’s and B’s.”

Lisa Hagan, an MSU Denver professor who taught Thurber’s cognitive development class during the semester she had a stroke, said she was amazed by Thurber’s perseverance.

“She was one of the most conscientious students I’ve had,” Hagan said. “She put forth probably triple the effort most students would. When she had the stroke, I thought she was going to retake the class because, in my mind, who can come back from a stroke and continue out the semester? Unbelievably, she did. She’s so self-deprecating. She was like, ‘I’m so sorry,’ and I would constantly be like, ‘You just had a stroke so you don’t really have to apologize for anything.’ ”

Thurber made it through her classes with good grades and newfound confidence.

As graduation approached, Koppel said Thurber was one of the first people in line at MSU Denver to get her cap and gown.

Thurber has dreams of helping children with her degree and flexing the creative writing skills she honed during the last few years of her education. She is searching for someone to publish or illustrate a few stories she wrote about her remarkable life.

“Every day is a new beginning,” Thurber said. “I appreciate life so much. I succeeded in investing in myself when everybody told me it was a waste of time.”

On a recent Thursday night, a room full of veterans assembled on the Auraria Campus for a graduation ceremony honoring those who served in the military. Thurber was recognized as a special student, receiving a standing ovation and a shoutout from her 25-year-old daughter, Mary Poignard, who screamed “You go, Mom!” from the audience as Thurber crossed the graduation stage.

After the ceremony, as Thurber sat with her children, beaming, she showed them the medal the school bestowed upon her and bit it like an Olympian, winking as she did.

“The one thing about my mom — if she wants something, she’s going to get it,” Poignard said.

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