Student graduates college after 49 years

Larry Johnson is a grandfatherly looking Cobb County guy whose college graduation selfie went viral.

“My goal was to graduate before I reached 100 years of age. I made it with 33 years to spare,” he tweeted just before his Georgia State University ceremony began Thursday.

It took him 49 years to graduate.

Johnson, 66, started taking classes at Georgia State in the fall of 1969. Over the next half-century he changed majors three times, attended classes in at least four different decades (the 1960s, 1970s, 1990s and this one) and took breaks that made it seem like he was never coming back.

Yet somehow he did. Repeatedly.

And Johnson didn’t finish up his degree just to say he did it and then hang it up on a wall in retirement. He’s actually hoping to use what he learned for his small business.

Lots of U.S. college students wonder about their futures. They fret over what to major in and what to do when they graduate. Plenty take longer than expected, racking up huge education bills in the process.

Some become convinced too much life has gotten in the way and they drop their on-again, off-again pursuits of a degree, believing their window has closed.

Johnson is proof that some windows stay propped open longer than many realize.

His tweet, with the hashtag gsu18 and a photo of him with mortarboard atop his white-hair, connected with people. It gathered hundreds of thousands of likes and 1,600 comments in recent days.

“Congratulations sir!” one person wrote. “And thank you for inspiring a whole bunch of 20 somethings who feel under pressure coz we didn’t graduate by 21.”

Johnson told me, “The tweet was something I just sent out while I was bored waiting for the commencement to start.”

In an emailed statement, Georgia State President Mark Becker said, “Larry Johnson’s story epitomizes the Georgia State spirit. His grit and determination should inspire us all.”

Johnson, who lives in Mableton, isn’t ready to be put on a pedestal.

“I don’t know that I’d advise other people to do it exactly the way I did it,” he said.

But he said he’s glad that people who see his situation as an example that there are still opportunities in their own lives.

Whether people are in their late 20s or many decades older, options remain, he said. "You don't have to fold up and die because you think you are old and you think you are over the hill."

Johnson grew up in Atlanta’s Grant Park. He was the first person in his immediate family to have gone to college when he started as a history major at Georgia State in the late 1960s.

“I just went to college because most of my friends were doing it. I had no clear idea of what college entailed” or any particular goals, he said.

That was so long ago that Johnson told me he can’t recall why he wanted to be a history major.

Tuition was so affordable that he said he could cover the costs with a part-time job as a janitor.

But he wasn’t a stellar student. He didn’t show up for classes that didn’t interest him and he failed to retake some courses, which resulted in him getting zeroes that sank his college GPA.

After a year and a half or so, he dropped the idea. He started classes again later in the 1970s as he saw peers graduating, but that effort soon petered out.

“I was just very flaky and had no idea why I was there,” he said.

He later worked as a cabinet maker and even started his own shop, but his wife at the time suffered increasingly serious health issues and ultimately needed a kidney transplant.

It was prior to Obamacare and he said he could neither afford the growing medical bills nor find private insurance that would cover his wife’s pre-existing conditions. He shut down his cabinet business so the couple would fall under income limits to qualify for coverage through the federal government.

In the early 1990s he started taking classes to pursue a degree in computer science at Georgia State. Prices had gone up dramatically since the 1960s, but he managed to avoid more college debt and worked a part-time student job in one of the university’s computer operations. A supervisor offered him a full-time job and insurance that would cover his ailing wife.

Eventually, though, the pace of full-time work, daily caregiving for his wife and part-time schooling was too much, he said. He again put college on hold.

Georgia State gave him promotions, even one that normally would have required a college degree, but his lack of a degree still limited his options, he said.

That’s just one of the reasons he continued to periodically wonder about finishing college.

“There was a little bit of ego in there and a little bit of unfinished life business,” he told me. The lack of a degree was unusual among most of those closest to him.

A few years ago, he retired from his university job as a software systems engineer.

As a side venture, he had long written about “hyper” local news and eventually started the Cobb County Courier website. After his retirement he was eager to learn more about the craft of journalism and to grow his site as a business.

Johnson could go back to school more easily than most. While tuition costs have stabilized at Georgia schools for the moment, they've been a growing hurdle for many traditional students. But Georgia's university system offers tuition-free college classes for residents 62 years or older.

Johnson kept a relatively light load of classes for several years, hoping to learn as much as he could about journalism, rather than rushing to get a diploma.

“This was something that I really loved doing. When classes ended it was almost like ‘Huh, what now?’ ”

“The other was being relieved that I’ve got the degree. I can focus at least for the next year on building the website.”

Except that he’s already contemplating the unthinkable: going back to school. He’s wondering about getting a master’s degree in public policy and perhaps learning how to work with geographical information systems.

How long does he think that will take, given his, um, past experience, I asked in a follow-up email.

Johnson’s reply: Until he gets more information about the program, “I have no idea.”

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