December Diploma

The other gift of the Magi


By Phil Koch

My father-in-law, an immigrant to America, ended his one-room schoolhouse education in Ireland at age 12. My own father, a product of the East Side of New York City, quit grammar school before graduation. In each case they were expected to go to work early in life to help their large families and younger siblings survive.  Little wonder that both bright men placed a high value on education, imbuing their children with its importance. “A good education is something no one can ever take from you” became the mantra for my wife Anne and me, and for our family.

When Anne, a registered nurse, decided to resume college at age 61, she mused, “Do you realize how old I’ll be when I finish?” I replied, “How old will you be if you don’t?”

Being old can easily be a state of mind. Satchel Paige, the great baseball pitcher, once said, “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are?”     

Anne graduated at age 70 with a double major in history and English, Phi Beta Kappa. No less chronologically advantaged, I wrestled with the same challenge and wrote about it in O.Henry two years ago. It was a story of an impatient old man who, burnt out after two years of chasing a history degree, decided to end the pursuit. Health questions, and the required study of a foreign language, motivated the decision to stop at the time.

With an irony that O.Henry himself would appreciate, I found that I missed college even before the story had been published. I missed the stimulation from classmates that I interacted with. All were hardworking, some commuting and holding down part-time jobs while taking 18 credits a semester. I missed the fascinating subjects, the discipline of study, and the research and the writing.  After personal reevaluation, I decided to return.

UNCG let me study other subjects — German history and literature — in lieu of a language requirement. That helped encourage me to return once more to college at age 80, this time at a slower and healthier pace of three or six credits per semester. No longer in a hurry, I realized that the pursuit was more rewarding than the goal!

The last two years have been delightfully stimulating. Topics included “A History of North Carolina,” “The Berlin Blockade and Berlin Airlift of 1948,” “The History of Voting Rights in America,” and my senior thesis, The Influence of Gilded Age Music on Racial Stereotyping. I loved the challenges, the satisfaction in completing the papers.

Sometimes I hear, “I’ve thought about going back to school but never acted on it. Maybe I will . . .” I tell people, education is a gift that never ceases to give back.

At last, my Bachelor of Arts History degree is here — 65 years after my 1952 high school graduation. At age 82, I’m finished with school. And it doesn’t look like any college will come forward to use my remaining few years of athletic eligibility. I am the last of my family, which includes four children, their spouses and six grandchildren, to complete my college education. Anne’s dad, Tom Burke from County Mayo, Ireland and my dad, Phil Koch Senior from New York City, would agree that it is the best gift anyone can give to oneself. Merry Christmas, Phil.  OH

Now that he’s graduated, Phil Koch is preparing the next item his bucket list.

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