Jewell Cardwell

Her sense of fashion, while head-turning, is not all that makes her interesting.

Rather, it’s Annetta Karam’s forward-thinking attitude and her courage to do more than just clock time that makes her the toast of the town, specifically at the University of Akron, where she is a perennial student.

She has an unparalleled balance of style and substance.

An extraordinary coup, especially for one who just celebrated her 97th birthday.

I met this quiet queen of learning early one morning last week in the University’s Kolbe Hall, where she had arrived, as is custom, a full 45 minutes before the start of class.

She was positioned in the front row in the seat that brought her — a black wheelchair — neatly coiffed and dressed in a three-piece lemon-yellow pantsuit with coordinating jewelry and black croc leather loafers.

However, it was the Akron woman’s unusual eyewear that really woke me up.

I phoned Tom Barracato of Adolph Optical, where the fashionista purchased her signature frames in the early 1990s, for a description:

“The limited-edition frame, the only one we ever got in — manufactured by an Italian company, Casanova Eyewear — is called ‘The Timepiece.’ Each of the two eye structures are stylized clocks, and on the bridge is a person trying to hold back or stop time.”

Annetta Karam knows well the futility of trying to stop time, and instead has wisely elected not to waste any of it. Her formula is keeping an appetite for learning and maintaining a broad spectrum of interests.

Take her latest class: black American literature.

“It just seemed like a fascinating subject and it is,” Mrs. Karam said. “Besides, I wanted to know more to be able to discuss it with my closest friend, who is black.

“But I find very difficult the stories about slavery. I don’t like what happened then.”

Dr. Patrick Chura, who teaches the diverse class, gave Mrs. Karam high marks for “contributing a lot to the class discussions. Her answers are illuminating.”

This day’s discussion centered on Booker T. Washington (1856-1915), an African-American educator, orator, author and adviser to presidents.

The soft-spoken and confident Mrs. Karam showed she could dish on his Up From Slavery book and his Atlanta Exposition speech (from 1895) with the best of them.

Asked about her other interests, she rattled off quite a list. “Reading and music — opera and classical. I used to collect camels, coins and stamps. But not anymore.”

Asked whether she likes to cook, her reply was as refreshing and unorthodox as she is. “Cook is a four-letter word,” she replied. “I don’t like four-letter words!”

Fellow student Mikki Anderson — a fifth-year senior majoring in political science and criminal justice — was effusive with praise for Mrs. Karam, saying, “She’s always engaged. And she always comes to class well prepared.”

Proof of Annetta Karam’s strong drive to keep learning is the fact that she hires a driver to take her to and from her classes. “I have to if I want to learn. And I do,” she reasoned.

The Canton native is twice widowed (George Koury and Dr. Harvey A. Karam, who was a physician and chief of family practice at Akron General Medical Center) and has a master’s degree in social work from Columbia University. She has been religiously auditing classes at UA since 2006, the same year she gave up driving.

That’s 37 classes ago. And she shows no signs of letting up.

“I generally take two classes in the fall, winter and spring,” she said. “I take one in the summer because that’s five days a week.”

Lest you think otherwise, this is not just some get-out-of-house, window-dressing activity for Annetta Karam. She’s as serious a student as you can find.

She’s committed to all of the homework and is quick to raise her hand in class to participate in the discussions.

The only thing she doesn’t have to do, because she’s auditing the course, is take tests, write papers or get graded. Doesn’t need the stress, she insists, at this time in her life.

That’s not to say she’s not grading herself. She keeps the bar high, reading and rereading all of the coursework, making sure she absorbs it.

Her sweet reward to her professors upon completion of the coursework? A two-pound box of chocolates!

As a testament to just how committed Annetta Karam is to her education and that of other students there, she has established an endowment at UA in her name and that of her second husband. The Dr. Harvey A. and Annetta Karam Endowed Scholarship supports deserving students who want to pursue a medical degree.

Mrs. Karam worked in social work in New York, and for a short time at Summit County Children Services. She also volunteered 30 years with more than 10,000 hours at Akron General Medical Center.

Part of her global education included travel. Twenty-seven trips in 10 years abroad. “I went around the world eight times,” she said.

These days she has opted for a different mode of travel, experiencing the world by opening up books and herself to burgeoning opportunities, each aimed at keeping her moving forward and her brain active.

Jewell Cardwell can be reached at 330-996-3567 or jcardwell@thebeaconjournal.com.