Already dubbed “the Betty White of Sarpy County” by her business law instructor, 86-year-old Beth Ragland is on the way to becoming its next Perry Mason.
Beth Ragland earned her Associate of Applied Science in General Studies with a concentration in prelaw classes from Metropolitan Community College in May 2022, but she has been holding court since she arrived on campus in fall of 2019 after transferring from another local college.
Ragland was part of a 2022 MCC graduating class of more than 1,500 at spring commencement. She strutted the stage at Baxter Arena with a gold sash worn over her graduation gown to signify the 4.0 grade-point average she carried all the way through her studies. The lifelong learner walked directly into an internship offer with the Sarpy County Attorney’s Office.
Her end goal is to practice elder law.
“I want to practice elder law because there are so many elderly people who are mistreated,” Ragland said. “I like the variety of things I’ve learned and want to use the education I’m getting to help someone who doesn’t have it.”
Helping others has always been a part of Ragland’s daily operations. The requirement to go to her graduation party, which was attended by more than 200 family members and friends, was to bring a can of food for a local food pantry she has volunteered with for years.
“We filled my Cadillac with food donations and also had more than $1,000 in cash donations,” Ragland said. “I was more excited about that than graduating.”
Ragland has also volunteered with several community organizations over the years. She and her late husband, Ken, who passed from cancer in 2014, were also politically active in Sarpy County and throughout the state. But during her studies, everything she was involved in took a back seat to school.
“I thought, if I am going to put my time into it, I might as well go full blast, and that’s what I did. I gave up all my social clubs. I gave up everything. I was very active in the arts council, the women’s group, the Republican Party and volunteering, but I had to give it up because school was more important to me,” Ragland said.
It was from Ragland’s involvement in politics with Ken that her love of the law ensued. Long before pursuing a degree, she served as a layperson appointed by the governor in the judicial nomination process at the Sarpy County Courthouse. About 10 years ago, through that process, she became acquainted with District Court Judge Stefanie Martinez, who serves Nebraska’s 2nd Judicial District covering Cass, Otoe and Sarpy counties. It evolved into a friendship when they realized they shared a birthday on Valentine’s Day.
“We started celebrating our birthdays together. [Beth] loves to throw a good party, so she would always include me,” Martinez said. “She refers to me as her sister, and she is probably one of the closest things I have to family in town. We spend holidays and special events together. She’s close to my four kids, and I knew her husband Ken and went through that loss with her.”
Ragland said she was able to attend college utilizing her late husband’s military veteran benefits. In working through his loss in grief counseling, she met Michael Hennessy, now her fiancé, who lost two previous spouses, also to cancer. She credits Hennessy with helping to keep her focused on her goals.
“I have a fiancé who was a teacher at one time. He’s a pusher. He made darn sure we didn’t go out and socialize before I had my assignments done,” Ragland said. “I didn’t need a lot of pushing. I’m an ambitious person, but that little push really helped me.”
Court is in session
To complete some of her assignments and finals requirements in her pre-law classes at MCC, Ragland observed court cases. Martinez gave her a seat at the bench in her courtroom to complete her coursework, as well as helped her determine which classes would be most relevant for continuing on to a degree in law after finishing her associate degree at MCC.
“I do a lot of criminal and domestic cases, so I would invite her to come to court and join me when I had a trial, and she would sit up at the bench with me. Beth really enjoyed it. She sat with me too many times to count on all different types of cases, and she diligently took notes. Then we would debrief, and she would ask questions about what happened or how I handled things,” Martinez said.
At the beginning of those proceedings, Martinez would introduce Ragland to the attorneys with the prosecution and defense. In one such introduction, Martinez said a divorce attorney made a “flippant comment” about Ragland still going to school at her age.
Ragland’s response had the same effect as a gavel making firm contact with oak.
“She just shut him down — he had no response to her, and that guy always has a response. It was really funny,” Martinez said.
During her observance of courtroom trials, Ragland could not react outwardly or interact with the participants. But she could dish in the classroom about moments that caused her to raise her eyebrows in the halls of justice, such as a lawyer being unprepared for court, or a damaging piece of testimony being uncovered during a trial.
Carol Cleaver, an MCC business law instructor, said Ragland was a joy to have in class. Besides the straight-A average she carried and her notorious classroom commentary, the treats she often baked for her classmates also elevated her among her peers. Her cat named Baby Girl (first name) Baby Person (last name) also became a frequent point of reference in classroom discussions, Cleaver said.
“She had a lot of different life experiences that just had the class rolling. At first [the other students] didn’t know how to take her, but as they got to know her, they just loved coming to class to see what she was going to say next,” said Cleaver, who graduated from MCC at 49 and has been a practicing attorney since 2006. “What I think was amazing about her is they will look back and remember her as a woman who said, ‘My life isn’t over yet, and I still have a lot of work to do.’”
The caring touch at MCC
Ragland first started her educational pursuit in 2017 at another institution, but she transferred to MCC in 2019. She also paused taking classes during the beginning of the pandemic before resuming her studies in the 2021 fall quarter.
“I wasn’t sure how it was all going to pan out, so I just took time off due to COVID-19. The minute I found out everything was going to be okay, I went right back to it,” Ragland said.
She credits the instructors and classroom setting she experienced at MCC in making it feel like the right place for her to be. Cleaver, with whom she took six classes, and her criminology professor, Brenda Smith, were particularly impactful, Ragland said. She also enjoyed meeting other students, including international students from Afghanistan and Russia.
“I didn’t enjoy [the other college] as much. I learned there, but [MCC] is much more one on one. I got most of my smarts from [MCC],” Ragland said. “The instructors are very caring about their students and went into great depth, and if you ever had a question, they were right there to answer them in class, online — wherever.”
Smith said Ragland provides inspiration to anyone who believes the opportunity to pursue new career goals has passed.
“Beth is a fantastic person and student,” she said. “I hope that I have that much drive and determination when I am 86 years old.”
Like the divorce attorney, everyone who comes into Ragland’s orbit on her journey of achievement soon understands she’s not filling time — she’s maximizing it. While determining the next step she’ll take toward going to law school, Ragland has continued taking classes at MCC. She enrolled in tort law and general biology classes during the summer quarter.
No signs of slowing down are on the horizon.
“After my husband died, I just figured, ‘Hey, I’m not going to just sit around and grieve for the rest of my life. You can’t bring him back, so you might as well move on,’” Ragland said. “I think that if people want to keep a bright and sharp mind, they should continue educating themselves. I don’t care if it’s at a college or what, I think you should take courses to learn how to cope with life the way it is because it’s not easy like it used to be. It’s very complicated sometimes.”
Her nudge to anyone who is considering going back to school but is finding reasons not to:
“Give yourself permission and go for it. Or else you’ll be 86 years old and going back to school,” Ragland said with a laugh.