Eileen Keenan: A CSUN Centenarian

  • 101-year-old Eileen Keenan sits outside on her patio.

    Eileen Keenan, a 101-year-old CSUN alumna, earned her bachelor's degree in 1971. Photo by David J. Hawkins.

  • A portrait of a younger Eileen Keenan as a nurse.

    A portrait of a younger Eileen Keenan as a nurse.

Eileen Keenan lived through the Great Depression, beat tuberculosis before antibiotics were available and worked in the nursing field for more than 65 years. Keenan was also a non-traditional university student, attending in her late 40s and early 50s, when she earned her bachelor’s degree from CSUN, then known as San Fernando Valley State College.

Keenan ’71 (Health Science) is 101 years old, making her one of the oldest living CSUN alumni.

The centenarian has been a lifelong learner and teacher. As a young mother and newcomer in California, Keenan took community college classes in her 30s, later completing her associate degree at age 48. When she finished her bachelor’s degree at CSUN some years later, the university was the stepping stone Keenan needed to earn her Licensed Vocational Nurse (LVN) teaching certificate. Keenan went on to share what she learned at CSUN and her already vast nursing experience.

Keenan was born in Montreal, Canada, in 1918. As a young girl, Keenan said she was a free spirit who cared deeply about her family and friends.

“I’m an Aquarius. I don’t know if you believe in that stuff, but they love their friends,” Keenan said.

At age 17, Keenan graduated from St. Paul’s Academy in Canada in the midst of the Great Depression, which had an impact that also had a severe effect on Canada. Her friends planned to go into nursing, and she knew she wanted to follow them. Keenan began her nursing training that same year. By age 20, she was working as a registered nurse for St. Mary’s Hospital in Montreal. At the time, nurses lived and studied at the hospital, she said — there were no speciality schools.

“They worked us [hard] — 12-hour duty and never got a vacation,” Keenan said.

When tuberculosis swept through her nursing class, Keenan fell ill. A doctor directed Keenan to stay in bed for six months, in order to recover. Keenan said there was a silver lining during her convalescence — a new friendship with her future husband, Doug.

“He came up to see some other nurse friend,” Keenan said. “She said, ‘You know Eileen — you met her at the dance for graduation. Why don’t you go down and say hello?’”

Keenan recovered after a year and continued to see Doug. After two years of dating, they married,  welcomed four children, and then decided to pursue greater opportunities in California. They bought a house in Glendale where they welcomed their fifth child just 10 days after arriving in the area, Keenan said.

Money became tight — something Keenan said she’d never worried about before — so she took a job at a hospital in Glendale. She overheard the nurses there discussing college classes. Inspired, Keenan enrolled in Glendale Community College at age 35. It took Keenan 13 years, but she completed her associate’s degree at GCC while working full-time as a nurse and raising five children. She then enrolled at Cal State L.A. to continue her educational journey, and soon transferred to CSUN.

At 48 years old, Keenan enrolled at CSUN while still raising a family, working and teaching night classes three days a week. She credits Doug for being there and encouraging her to pursue higher education. Keenan loved and appreciated her years at CSUN.

“It was a nice campus,” Keenan said. “I liked it very much, and I wish I could have taken part in more things, but I was so busy in my own life.”

Keenan graduated from CSUN at 53, launching her on a trajectory to earning her LVN teaching certificate. She spent two summers in San Francisco working toward and receiving her public health certificate from the University of California, Berkeley. She also earned a teaching credential from UCLA.

In her late 50s, however, tragedy struck. Keenan lost both Doug and their second child, Beverly, to cancer. Keenan lost her daughter to the diseases nine-months before Doug.

“That was a bad time,” Keenan said. “I wanted to do something to get some time for myself away from it, and I took up oil painting.”  The paintings now reside on the walls of her home. She no longer paints regularly.

Keenan also stayed immersed in her career. She worked until she was 81, with the last eight years spent teaching LVNs throughout Los Angeles County. She taught her last class at Casa Loma College in Van Nuys.

“I really liked teaching,” Keenan said. “I thought that was the most rewarding because you made friends with the kids.”

Keenan remains active at 101, by reading books delivered directly from a nearby library, dabbling in social media like Facebook, watching her favorite television channel PBS and hosting a weekly bingo night with friends. Her secret to longevity: Don’t stress or panic too much.

“If you really take care [of yourself], you can live a long time,” Keenan said.

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