I started my freshman year at ETSU in the fall of 1980. A graduate of Sullivan Central High School, I was working for WQUT as a radio disc personality and playing in a band. Probably not the best formula for a collegiate success story, but I had my dreams – just about like any other new college student.

However, on this day – some 38 years a later, I’m looking in a rear-view mirror and blessed to see the view. Sure, I might be a 56-year-old college graduate, but I wouldn’t have changed a thing.

When I first walked the campus of East Tennessee State University in later December of 2018, my whole life, like a lot of the folks standing next to me was before me.

My dad wanted me to study medicine. My mind at the time was all about the music. For me – at least the first two years – I wanted to be a band director or be a musician, so I studied music. As a side interest, I thought I’d minor in something like broadcasting. Seemed a clear choice since I had started to work at a radio station.

And there began my river of education. You see, some people have it all figured out. I didn’t. For some reason, I just decided to let my career flow to the sea. I wouldn’t recommend that for everyone, but that’s the path I charted.

After a few years in college, a wreckless graveyard schedule as a disc jockey, flirting around in a band – not to mention getting married, it wasn’t long before I had run out of gas – on all horizons.

A couple of years in, I quit radio and went back to work as a manager for a local restaurant. My grades and my interests had run up quite a bit of student debt, so I did what most false starters do – I went to work.

In the early eighties, I got a job at the Kingsport Times-News. That step was almost 35 years ago and since then it’s been an amazing career.

Along the way, Keith Wilson and the Kingsport Times-News offered a chance to go back to school. I found my second time around was more stable. My grades were much better due to a lighter load and I found myself intrigued by many new subjects related to my work. Topics from English, Advertising, Marketing and Literature seemed to find the most interest, so I kept chipping away the credit hours.

That probably wasn’t the best path to go, but it was interested for a time. It worked out well – until the Macintosh.

I think it was somewhere around 1994 that I purchased my first computer. The Apple IIsi would completely disrupt my night classes at ETSU. The technology was running much faster than the classroom, so I completely absorbed myself into my new computer and ultimately, heading up a Internet and software company in the late 90s and early 21st century.

And that’s where the regret started to surface. Not having a college degree was always a difficult phrase for me to admit to. Besides having a ferocious appetite for learning and a healthy practice of reading, I still couldn’t fill out an application or any formal resume without struggling with the “attended some college” checkbox selected.

Besides the lifelong disappointment from my father who never really seemed proud of the undergraduate, the most embarrassing moments came when the resume was updated.

I’m certainly aware that most any automated employment software sends a resume without a college education down a different path. Most employers have undergraduate resumes underneath the college applicants

There must have been a decade that passed before I started back to school and when I did, it was all computers and digital media. As the years passed though, lots of classes started to fall away and it seemed like I would never graduate.

My wife, Dr. Kelli Cate was always inspiring and supportive on my journey. Truth is, it was always one of those misses that I was always uncomfortable with around her. She’s had both an ambitious and determined path through academia – not only was she intimidating in coversation, the fact that she married me is still a mystery. She never made a fuss about, but she has always been encouraging and she’s one voice.

Another voice that kicked me off my high horse was Dr. Steve Marshall. Steve is one of my most inspiring friends, colleagues, musician troubadours and sage. I’ll never forget the day we had lunch a couple of years ago. I was fretting about classes and the fact that ETSU didn’t offer the classes that I wanted at the time I wanted to take them. You see, I wanted to take something interesting – all the time. If it had no purpose in my life. Pass. Each semester, I would look for a technology class, an obscure poetry or English class and miss the boat – each semester because I was being petty about it.

Then he looked at me across the table and said, “Get the damn degree.”

He had heard enough of my lament and frustration as to which path to take. He continued by saying, “if I had a son or daughter headed to college today, I’d encourage them to General Studies simply because the workforce is changing so much, we may never know if we’re narrowing our focus with a specific degree in this in that.”

For some reason, that was all he had to say. He was right. After more than a decade of fretting about, what, when and where – “get the damn degree” was the challenge I needed.

So here I am. In the corridors of the mini-dome. An old man. Grey hair, achy knees and sagging wrinkles. Next to me – a young man with air-pods. He’s tall, lost in a space with his mix and bouncing his head forward with an anxious cadence. We we lining the walls with hundreds of other graduates and I said hello and he said – “I can’t believe I’m graduating.”

I replied…”Tell me about it.”

Dr. Noland spoke to the graduating class as we were settled on to the chairs in the new astro turf and he advised us to turn our cell phones off – if nothing more than to enjoy every moment of the experience and he was right. I looked to my right and not far way was Kelli with her gorgeous smile and my mother beaming like I was 23. 

As I walked to the stage and past Fred Sauceman who announced my name – those few moments in the cap and gown will forever be a flash memory for me. I smiled one of my best at Dr. Noland and he transferred the degree I had been working toward for so long now. The weight and the wait of it all was worth it.

Now…the only questions is – what’s next? Isn’t it always.