What's it like to graduate at 75? Ask my dad.
This article was originally posted on May 6, 2017 on al.com.
Let me put this in perspective for you.
When my dad started classes at The University of Alabama in the summer of 1960 he did not have a telephone. When he met my mom not too long after that in 1966, they would receive Western Union telegrams to let them know when friends were planning to visit. Tuition was $97.50 per semester.
Saturday my dad's journey will end. At 75 years old and 57 years after he started college, he will graduate from UA, silver hair under his mortarboard. His wife, Carol, will be cheering him on, as she has the 54 years they have been married.
There is no play book for going back to school at 75. Comical things happened, like when he got mail addressed to "the parents of Virgil Cummings." Or the time I emailed his professor on his behalf with what must be the best excuse he's ever heard for not taking a test on time. It wasn't, "I overslept" or "I was hungover." It was, "My dad cannot take the midterm on time because he has a heart aneurysm and needs surgery." Dad powered back after surgery, was able to make up his midterm and finish the class with an A.
When my daughter was born 15 years ago, he would tell people, "I'm her only grandparent without a college degree," a fact I never knew until my mom recently told me.
When dad went back to school this year to finish the one class he needed to graduate, my only request was that he please, please not take my class. Anyone who has parents will understand this. I could just picture it: I would explain something to the class and he would interject or argue a point. Then, in my mind, I am no longer almost 45 years old. Suddenly I am 10, living in my parents' house and it's a "Don't-leave-the-door-open-and-air-condition-the-neighborhood!" moment. The tables are turned and I am no longer the teacher. I am a little girl in trouble with my dad.
What's the biggest difference between being a college student in the early 1960s and being one today? I asked dad. He laughed wildly. This was not the reaction I expected. I was waiting for an ABC Afterschool Special of lessons never learned, complete with violins in the background. Instead I got this answer:
"Well, for one thing I'm trying to be a straight A student and I never did that before."
Back in the day dad got sidetracked. As a political science major he got swept up in the independent movement on campus, watching then UA-students like Bill Baxley and Don Siegelman. There was also touch football in the Paty Hall dorm yard, which was new then, and where dad worked in the cafeteria earning 65 cents an hour. Those long days of partying and working hard meant that he would often fall asleep studying at night. He eventually ran out of money and left to work in Birmingham, but not before having some fun on campus.
"The campus politics just got to be something fascinating to be involved with," he said. "If I had to do it over again I would ignore all of it and be a better student. When you get older you enjoy learning more. It was hard to sit in Paty and study when there was always somewhere to go or something to do."
Dorm shenanigans were the norm. One guy on dad's hall would use a block and tackle to take the engine out of his car and work on it in his dorm room on the third floor.
"One guy ran up and down the hall with a pistol shooting all the time," dad told me. "Of course he was shooting blanks, but nobody thought anything about it. Back then you didn't have to worry about stuff like that. We all thought it was an idiotic thing to do, but we didn't think much about it."
Across campus, in another dorm, there was the time when a football player got mad at a Coke machine and picked it up and threw it down the stairs then out onto the street. And then there was the first time dad met Joe Namath, who he took ROTC with, a story I cannot repeat here due to its colorful language.
I've been struggling to figure out why I am so touched, puffed up and proud about dad's graduation, aside from the fact that it's a journey 50 years in the making, and I've decided this: As a parent, I now understand what sacrifice feels and looks like. It is wonderful and painful all at the same time.
I imagine what my parents gave up. Dad worked hard while his two kids grew up, participated in sports, took dance lessons, youth group trips, and attended proms, all while he helped put my working mom through college when I was in middle school. And mom, who cannot be heralded enough as my dad's No. 1 supporter and fan, was a constant chauffeur and nurse to two children with Type 1 diabetes and chef of meals from scratch before microwaves.
I will both laugh and pull out a tissue when dad walks across that stage because - finally - he will be in the spotlight and complete a lifelong goal.
Next up? Dad wants to continue to work on his AutoCAD skills and read "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire." You know, as one does in spare time.
He will also continue to look for work. He has worked for 50 years as a structural steel checker and detailer, but has been without full-time work for a few years now. He acknowledges the challenges.
"Nobody wants a 75-year-old on their payroll," he said. "When I talk to people they are nice to me and all, but they just don't call me back."
Still, he remains undaunted. He encourages other people to go back to school - even some 57 years later.
"If you are interested in something and you can do it, go do it," he said.
"Nowadays there's no excuse not to. Take an online course. You can do it at home. You can do it at your convenience. You can learn things you've always wanted to know. It's good for your brain to exercise it like that and it's fascinating and interesting. If you sit on the front porch and rock, you're probably not going to last as long."