This PhD Delivers Punchlines and Life Lessons

A passion for learning and laughter propels USC alumna Phyllis Meltzer’s work and giving.

As she takes the stage at a Hollywood comedy club for her first-ever stand-up routine, Phyllis Meltzer MSG ’92, PhD ‘97—or Dr. Phyllis as she introduces herself—is the definition of vibrancy. Her colorful act, an amusing array of anecdotes about adapting to life as an older adult— “I used to be 6’4,” the petite performer tells the crowd—presents a rosy but realistic outlook on aging.

“I try to be positive and hopeful with my humor,” says Meltzer. “We all experience changes as we grow older. Being able to laugh at them shows courage and acceptance.”

A Theme of Playfulness

Watch a video of this 2007 show—the culmination of a class she enrolled in near age 70 because of a lifelong pull to perform—and see Meltzer commanding the stage in a three-piece pink pantsuit that is several shades brighter than the dyed-fuchsia locks Cindy Lauper sported when she burst on the scene to announce that girls just want to have fun.

It is a sentiment with which Meltzer, who earned her master’s degree at the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology and her doctorate at the USC Mrs. T.H. Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy certainly agrees.

“I made people laugh and just had a wonderful time,” she said.

Weaving a Way Forward

Like the irrepressible Lauper, Meltzer’s varied career path, which includes stints as a professor, artist, businesswoman and now comedian, stands out for its embrace of joy and change, all literally communicated through a rainbow of hues and threaded together with a consistent desire to help others learn.

In fact, in addition to sewing as a hobby, Meltzer is perhaps best known professionally for her creation of a kit called the Self Discovery Tapestry, an interactive life review instrument that directs participants to color on paper in specific patterns as a way to help them gain insights into their life events and coping styles. The tool became so popular for assisting adults in transition—it’s been used by older women, university students and even prison inmates—that Meltzer spent close to 15 years running a company to publish it.

A Love of Learning

Meltzer began work on the tapestry, which applies gerontology‐based lifespan theories to occupational science concepts, during her graduate work at USC. She also brought her own life experience to the task, including insights gained raising three children and working as a speech therapist, substitute teacher, museum educator and university professor both in Southern California and in Washington DC, two regions where her husband of 58 years, Joseph Meltzer, who earned a Phd from UCLA, had a long career in aerospace engineering. Phyllis Meltzer also has a bachelor’s degree from UCLA and a master’s in adult learning from Virginia Tech. She was 58 years old when she graduated with her doctorate from USC. She then joined the UCLA medical school faculty as a visiting professor.

“I never think it is too late for learning,” said Meltzer.

But she emphasizes that the joy of education comes from the effort and accomplishment, not from the grades. Meltzer says she’s not sure she ever earned an A during all her studies, and that is just fine with her.

“I think we all have a need for growth, for stimulation and for novelty, she said. “For me, the novelty is doing something new, something challenging. That is what drives me.”

Lending a Hand

Meltzer is also driven to help others. The recent establishment of the Drs. Joseph and Phyllis Meltzer Endowed Scholarship Fund in Gerontology, made possible by a gift to the USC Leonard Davis School from the Meltzers, illustrates her commitment to both gaining knowledge and giving back.

“A degree in gerontology provides a vast knowledge base that can be applied in many ways,” she said. “That is the value for me, and I look forward to seeing how students helped by this scholarship will put it to use.”

Adapting to Change

In many ways, it seems Meltzer has spent her entire working life focused on helping people through transition points. That is what she continues to do both on stage and as a multi-hyphenate individual—as in, did you hear the one about the gerontologist-occupational therapist-museum educator-business owner-professor-quilter-wife-mother-grandmother-stand-up comedian?

Phyllis Meltzer is all these things. But, of course, she’s no joke.

Instead, she’s a true teacher for how to live a fulfilling life. And as she continues to perform, most recently at the International Association of Gerontology and Geriatrics World Congress in San Francisco, she’s imparting valuable teachings to the rest of us.

“Don’t be afraid to change direction,” said Meltzer, echoing the formula for success she learned in her 2007 stand-up class. “The punchline, and the payoff, lies in delivering surprise endings.”

It is a lesson for comedy, for careers and for life.