Mary Tirman portrait
May 12, 2023
Daily Inter Lake

Woman’s Passion for Music Leads To Earning College Degree

By Heidi Desch

Throughout much of her life, Mary Tirman was too busy to pursue a college education. Raising four children and running a business after her husband died, she put her efforts into supporting her family.

Then about six years ago she began learning the violin through classes at Flathead Valley Community College, taking both credit and non-credit music courses. Her instructor and renowned violinist Wai Mizutani encouraged her to further her education.

That’s when Tirman, 82, made the shift to taking other academic courses so she could earn her degree. For three years she scaled back on music and began attending school year-round.

“I realized I don’t know how long I might have and I couldn’t stretch it out any longer,” Tirman said. “I knew I had to complete this degree. I took as many classes in a week as I could, but I wasn’t giving up on my music. The reason it took me so long to get my degree was because I wasn’t giving up my music.”

Tirman will join her fellow graduates on Friday as she celebrates earning her associate’s degree with honors. The college is holding its 55th annual commencement ceremony in the Wachholz College Center’s McClaren Hall on the Kalispell campus.

Reflecting on her accomplishment and work in the classroom just before picking up her cap and gown last week, Tirman laughed saying she’s “tired” and looking forward to a summer not being inside the classroom.

“I’m excited because my family has put so much value on what I’m doing,” she said. “They’re so supportive and excited. I asked them why it was so exciting to them and they said it’s because I'm an inspiration to their children.”

Tirman has two grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Her youngest son and his wife will be joining her at graduation.

“I’m most proud of my family,” she said. “They all have great careers and they’re all educated. They got an education because somebody cared about them and I didn’t have that. But my opportunity came later in life.”

Married at age 15, Tirman had three children by the age of 20. She says certain opportunities weren’t available to her because she had a family to raise while living in Phoenix, Arizona. Eventually, she earned her General Educational Development degree and had a successful career in real estate.

When her husband died, she took over running his Mercedes repair shop learning every aspect of the business, from car repair to accounting. She worked hard and took advantage of learning from those around her finding success without a degree, but that didn’t mean she didn’t think about college.

“It was a lifelong dream for me to graduate,” she said. “It’s funny how I had success in business and I was able to make money, but I wanted to go to college. I didn’t have anybody to support me like my kids had me, but now I’ve done it.”

After selling her business Tirman moved to Montana permanently, fulfilling a several decades-old goal. She and her husband had raised show horses together and when one of their horses was sold to a ranch in Montana not long before his death, she was invited to the ranch in Belt that purchased the horse.

This began 35 years of making the trip between Arizona and Montana as often as possible. As a self-proclaimed country girl, when she retired there was nothing that would keep her away from the Big Sky state. That’s when she began working for a time on pack trips in the Bob Marshall Wilderness.

After giving up riding horses, Tirman’s other lifelong dream — and what would become the gateway to her degree — began to materialize when she began learning the violin.

Tirman remembers as a young child receiving a violin from her father who purchased the instrument from a neighbor. After retiring, she was able to take the time to pursue the instrument and continue to foster her love of classical music, which she falls asleep to every night.

Though admittedly a lifelong learner, Tirman says entering the classroom was daunting at times. She relied heavily on the support at the college to make her way through the classes needed to earn her degree.

In addition to her music instructor, she credits Clinton Holman in the math and science tutoring center, and Jim Soular in the college’s writing lab, for their assistance.

“I think it's important that these people are given credit for what they did for me because, without them, this would never have happened,” she said. “I had support when I was overwhelmed. I wasn’t ever ready to quit, but when I was confused I had these three men who helped me and made sure I understood. Every professor I had helped me.”

Holman praised Tirman’s work ethic in obtaining her degree, while noting that she also had to adjust to learning new technology when the Covid-19 pandemic sent learning online.

“She put in the practice and was preparing,” he said. “She put in all the time and effort and was never hesitant about getting the work done that was necessary. She has risen to every challenge that has been put in front of her. She is an outstanding person.”

Now that she has completed her degree, Tirman plans to return to the schedule that had her practicing the violin for about 20 hours per week.

“I want to focus on my music,” she said. “I want to be better and learn more. I wasn’t able to practice enough in the last three years.”

During Friday’s ceremony, the college will recognize 268 students for earning 288 degrees and certificates. The college will also honor nine nursing graduates at a pinning ceremony in the Arts and Technology Building, Room 139, at 3 p.m.

Graduation is at 6 p.m. and doors open at 5 p.m.