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Meet the Physical Therapy Department's Oldest Living Alum

Trudy Schwarz, NYU PT's oldest living alum

Trudy Schwarz received her BS in Physical Therapy from NYU in 1951 – and now is the department’s oldest living alum at age 100.

After discovering the field of physical therapy by chance as a WWII refugee in England, Trudy spent 45 fulfilling years in the profession. Her advice for students at the beginning of their PT careers? “Stay active and interested physically and mentally.” 

Read on to learn more about Trudy’s background and experience as a student at NYU.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in the south of Germany in a town called Stuttgart. It was a middle-class home, and it was very peaceful at the time when I was young. I was fortunate to be able to finish high school in Stuttgart, because after that, Jewish children were no longer permitted in public schools. I was not permitted to go on to university in Germany.

So what did you do after graduating high school?

I was fortunate to gain a position in an English household – it was difficult to go to England unless you had somebody to sponsor you. I was supposed to be a household’s general maid, but after I started their cook left, so I had to do the work for both. It was a very old country home with uneven oak beams on the floor that I had to polish once a week on my hands and knees. The kitchen was ancient. It had a coal stove and an open fireplace. Except for camping, I had never learned how to cook on coals. 

Fortunately, other refugees in the same small town knew about a family looking for a nanny. I decided this was probably more interesting work, so I wrote to them and for three years I took care of their little girl [who had a disability]. A physical therapist used to come to the house and give her exercises, and I talked to the therapist about what being a PT entailed and thought that sounded like an interesting profession. 

How did you come to be enrolled as a PT student at NYU?

My parents were already in the US, and they were anxious to have my sister and me join them. By that time, it was after the war. We had already applied to come to the US but there was a quota system, and you had to wait until your number came up. Finally, our number did and I came to the US as a stewardess with my sister and two cousins. The ship we took had been bringing American troops from the far east to England before heading to the US. There were a lot of women who had married American soldiers while they were stationed in Europe, so the ship was looking for people to help take care of soldiers’ wives who were expecting or had recently given birth. I had to fill milk bottles and formula bottles for the babies, but that’s how we got to the US for free without having to pay for our passage.

I managed to get a scholarship to NYU for physical therapy and I sold clothes in an open market on Saturdays to make money to live on to pay my rent and buy food. 

What was it like living in New York City at that time?

I liked being in New York City. We used to get one egg a week in England, and in New York, if you ordered eggs in a restaurant, they came in twos – you couldn’t order one egg for breakfast! There was abundance as far as we were concerned.

It was good to be a student in New York. There were lots of museums and concerts and theaters to go to. I didn’t have much money – we used to walk home from midtown to where I lived on the West Side to save the nickel for the subway. But I took advantage – in those days, for students, you could have free entrance to museums and reduced tickets for plays.

What was your favorite part about being a physical therapist?

I liked to work with children. That’s how I happened to have my first real job, and I ended up always working with children after that. When I first started practicing I worked mostly in hospitals providing rehabilitation, but most of my career was spent serving children with disabilities in the NYC public school system.

What is your favorite activity to do these days?

I’m still interested in physical therapy. I get the magazines – it’s part of my life. You never get out of it! Outside of physical therapy, I still love music and concerts. I go to museums, I like plays, and I especially like music. I take courses, including a recent one about medieval music – there’s never a dull moment!

What’s your advice for current students at the beginning of their PT careers?

Stay active as long as you can, especially physically. I still walk up the three flights to my apartment, I go for walks, and I go for hikes in the woods where there are no paved paths, and you have to walk over rocks and roots. It’s important to stay active and interested physically and mentally.