At age 102, car enthusiast Margaret Dunning is gearing up for her next great adventure: She’s heading back to college to finish her business degree.
Mere hours ago, Dunning — who had to drop out of the University of Michigan nearly 80 years ago during the Great Depression — had no idea that homework and tests were about to loom large in her life once again. But she’s lived long enough to know that happy surprises can come at the most unexpected times — and on Wednesday afternoon, the surprise she got was a doozy.
At a special ceremony just for her, Dunning was presented with free tuition at the University of Michigan and free car-care products for the rest of her life. The FRAM Group, which makes FRAM, Autolite and Prestone automotive products, wanted to honor Dunning in response to a TODAY.com article about her lifelong love of cars (and penchant for changing her own oil and spark plugs all these years).Story: At 102, she changes oil, spark plugs on her 82-year-old car
- Ever Wonder Where the Property Brothers Live?
- History-Making Les Misérables Actor Kyle Jean-Baptiste Has Died at 21
- 'The Boat That Saved 400': How One Man Saved Hundreds of Lives During the Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina
- Jessa (Duggar) Seewald Speaks Out About Josh Duggar's Molestation and Cheating Scandals: 'You Just Have to Keep Your Focus and Trust God'
- Fourth Train Attack Hero Speaks Out For First Time Since Horrific Attack: I Turned to My Wife and Said 'Hide Yourself'
“I’m having a big day, I’ll tell you,” Dunning said in a telephone interview following the ceremony. “Was it ever a complete surprise!”
Dunning has been making headlines because of the doting care she still single-handedly provides to her 82-year-old car, a 1930 Packard 740 Roadster that she bought back in 1949. The Plymouth, Mich., resident also owns and cherishes a number of other classic cars.
On Wednesday, she reflected fondly on the Packards she’s driven over the years — including one that she smuggled to college with her and kept hidden in the woods.
“They would dismiss you out of school for a thing like that at the time,” Dunning said. “Nobody told on me, though. I used the car to come home on weekends, and I would come back and very quietly put it away.”Slideshow: Aging across America: Vigorous, vital and full of life (on this page)
Dunning grew up on a dairy and potato farm west of Detroit, not far from where Henry Ford’s family lived. She first learned how to drive on her family’s farm at age 8, experienced her first car crash (smack into her family’s barn) at age 10 and obtained her first official driver’s license at age 12.
After graduating from high school in 1929, Dunning began pursuing a business degree at the University of Michigan. But during the dark years of the Depression, she had to drop out of school to help her mother, who owned a bank and needed all the support she could get.
“I went on in banking for quite a while after that, so (leaving school) didn’t cause me too much harm,” Dunning said.
Still, the idea of returning to school after all these decades has filled Dunning with a rush of excitement. She said she figures she has about a year to go before completing her degree, and she’s already plotting out her commute to the university campus in Ann Arbor.
“I’ll have to figure out just what I’ll study, but it will be in business, though — I know that,” she said. “I’m still running a business right now. ... It’s a trust fund.”
More in Good News!
Dunning relished getting to talk shop with all the FRAM guys at the Plymouth Historical Museum on Wednesday afternoon — (“It’s so much fun to talk cars!” she said) — and she bubbled over with gratitude about the donations she received.
“I’m very, very pleased about it,” she said. “I feel that I’ve been granted a few years that other people do not have, and I am really very happy that I have this beautiful old world to live in.”Story: Accomplishing amazing athletic feats — in their 80s and 90s
To see more photos of Margaret Dunning with her beloved 1930 Packard, click here.
© 2013 NBCNews.com Reprints