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John Schmidt has put a new twist on the phrase “graduating senior.” 

Schmidt, who was born before World War II began, was 79 years old when he told his wife, Maryann: 

“There’s no excuse anymore. I’m going to graduate college.” 

Schmidt, who has worked most of his life in sales and served for two years in the U.S. Army, has lived a full and wonderful life. He and Maryann have been married for more than five decades, and they have four children and four grandchildren. 

But there was still one thing missing. 

A college degree. 

That is where St. Thomas University came in, as Schmidt last week became the oldest graduate of the Bobcats’ Class of 2023. Schmidt finished his final 60 credits over the past 2½ years, earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in Organizational Leadership. 

At his graduation ceremony, Schmidt received a huge ovation when STU president David A. Armstrong, J.D., spoke about his story. 

“When the student body stood up and gave me an ovation, I had a tear in my eye,” Schmidt said. “There must have been 2,000 people in that building, and to get that much positive appreciation … it was overwhelming.” 

Born on June 11, 1941, in Queens, New York, Schmidt started his college career at the University of Kansas in the fall of 1959. 

“I took a Greyhound bus from Manhattan (N.Y.) to Lawrence (Kansas),” Schmidt said. “It took me 28 hours to get there, and they also lost my luggage for a week.” 

Majoring in History, Schmidt was the first person in his family to attend college. 

However, once he arrived in Kansas, more hardship followed. The $1,300 tab for room and board per semester was difficult for Schmidt. 

After one year, he ran out of money, and he joined the Army, and was promptly stationed in Germany. 

He then returned home, and married Maryann in 1967. 

It was a great decision – in December they will celebrate 56 years of marriage. 

After that, the couple started their family, and – with everything involved with having a career and raising children — it just never seemed like the right time for Schmidt to return to college to finish what he started all those years ago. 

Before STU, Schmidt did try to get his elusive degree, enrolling at Miami Dade College, Broward College, and Nova Southeastern University at different intervals throughout his 20s and 30s. 

“I always felt deficient for not finishing,” Schmidt said. “I had this deep desire to finish, but I didn’t make a full commitment until I enrolled at St. Thomas when I was 79.” 

Schmidt simplified his time at STU by saying he took one course every month for 2½ years. His courses were all online, and he might have quit had it not been for his youngest daughter, Erin Joy Schmidt, a theatre professor at Providence College. 

“She helped me type up my reports,” Schmidt said. “It takes people around you to support you and encourage you, and that is a metaphor for life.” 

Schmidt said he drew on his life experiences to write his term papers. 

“(Erin Joy) said she learned a lot more about me by typing my reports,” Schmidt said. “She got to see the results of my experience in business.” 

Schmidt said he was inspired by Joan Chittister’s book, “The Time is Now,” whichtalks about the second half of a person’s life. 

“There are certain regrets you can’t do anything about,” Schmidt said. “But you can take action in regard to other regrets.” 

Schmidt can now put a giant check mark next to the “college degree” regret, and – surprisingly to him – it has made him a bit of a hero on the STU campus and beyond. 

After his graduation ceremony, Schmidt walked over to the on-campus reception/celebration at the Gus Machado College of Business. 

Schmidt, an unassuming sort, found the attention he received humbling and a bit embarrassing. 

“About 50 people approached me,” Schmidt said. “There were a lot of young people congratulating me and some in their 30s, 40s, and 50s. 

“It was overwhelming, astonishing and a bit mind-boggling. But if I encouraged just one person to go back to school to get their degree, then it was all worth it.” 

Asked for advice he would give students who are struggling to finish their degrees due to real-life circumstances, Schmidt quoted playwright George Eliot: 

“You are never too old to be who you might have been.” 

But perhaps STU president Armstrong said it best during his graduation-day speech on Wednesday when he relayed highlights of one of his interactions with Schmidt. 

Armstrong: “Why get your degree at your age?” 

Schmidt: “Why not?” 

Armstrong: “What will you do with your degree?” 

Schmidt: “Hang it on the wall.” 

Kris Williams

Author Kris Williams

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