Irrepressible nonagenarian wins honorary doctorate


Don’t tell Gloria Hobbs to act her age, unless you believe all 93-year-olds are too busy to stay home all day.

The 30-odd trophies she’s won playing bridge sit in front of her window at Skyview-on-the-Hudson, and it can be pretty lonely for them as Hobbs always seems to be on the move.

The former educator makes regular trips to the Longwood section of the Bronx — not exactly a trouble-free journey even for people half her age — volunteering her time at the Caldwell Temple Soup Kitchen on Rev. James A. Polite Avenue. 

There’s no slowing down Hobbs, especially now that Ithaca College upstate has made her a doctor … well, again.

Hobbs is a retired educator, but isn’t ready to retire. Her fighting spirit, in fact, is not a personality quirk, but instead borne from necessity as she had to break through one racial barrier after another in her long life.

Growing up, Hobbs had just one black teacher in high school, Ms. Ellen, who happened to be the only black teacher in all of Walton High School at the time. Little did Hobbs know then she would follow Ms. Ellen’s path as an educator, continuously finding herself as either the first — or only — African-American in the room.

“I had pride in my accomplishments because I knew if I did it, blacks would look at me and believe they could do this too,” Hobbs said.

With a bachelor’s from Hunter College and master’s from Columbia University, Hobbs felt she could create her own path. But World War II had just ended, and there weren’t a lot of options for those who weren’t white. 

“Back then, they weren’t hiring blacks in New York or anywhere really for those kinds of jobs,” Hobbs said. 

Ironically, she found opportunity in southern schools, eventually landing a job teaching French and Spanish at St. Philip’s College in San Antonio. Texas would become her home for the next 20 years — that is, when she wasn’t traveling the world to make good use of the six languages she spoke.

Hobbs’ older siblings “would run around the house conjugating words,” she said, “so by time I was in school, I was ahead of the class.” Besides French and Spanish, Hobbs also speaks Italian, Portuguese and Samoan.

Hobbs didn’t expect a warm welcome in Texas. She expected to be tarred and feathered, and that was optimistic. Back then, lynching was still a regular occurrence, and so it would’ve been impossible for Hobbs to not move there with at least some trepidation.

Yet, “my arrival was uneventful,” Hobbs said with a laugh.

In the early 1950s, Hobbs was working with Texas Southern University in Houston when she married her “country boy” husband, Carnell. 

“He was religious, ambitious and all my life he was very encouraging and supportive,” she said. 

The couple never had kids of their own, but they adopted three Nigerian children — all who ultimately attended prestigious schools like Harvard and Hobbs’ alma mater, Columbia.

“Let’s just say I don’t mess around,” she said. 

It was at the University of Texas Hobbs kept making history. She integrated the school’s romantic languages department while completing her doctorate — the school’s first African-American graduate.

In 1965, Hobbs was one of a dozen professors across the country — and the only one who wasn’t white —to win the Ellis L. Phillips Internship in Academic Administration. That gave her a paid year’s leave of absence, time Hobbs spent creating and directing the first women’s job corps center in McKinney, Texas. 

“McKinney was a small and segregated town and here you had this black girl interviewing white women for jobs,” Hobbs said. “Their hotels wouldn’t even give me a room.”

Yet, helping people has always been part of Hobbs’ life mission. It probably explains why, a half-century later, she still makes that weekend trip to the soup kitchen.

When Hobbs retired, she boarded a cargo ship and sailed around the world. She developed close relationships with the Samoan teens who worked as crew, and would teach them French and math. Those lessons would earn her places to stay in Samoa, growing so close with some of the families there, they call her “mother,” “grandmother” and sometimes “great-grandmother.” 

One village even made her a matai, a Samoan chief. 

Hobbs returned to New York in her retirement and stayed active, including serving as a trustee for the Ithaca school. She saw her role at Ithaca as an opportunity to give back to her community, especially after establishing a $10,000 fund for scholarships geared toward minority students.

In almost everything Hobbs does, she is usually looking for a way to help young people. She’s even managed to turn her numerous bridge trophies into charity, donating them to local community centers where they can be transformed into whatever trophy is needed for the contests they hold. 

“What else am I supposed to do?” Hobbs said with a laugh. “I have a passion for youth. That’s the kind of person I’ve always been. That’s the person I am.”