84-year-old earns diploma and isn’t yet ready to stop

Mike Lawrence finished in May what he started in the 1940s: his long pursuit of a college degree.

Becca Shrake

Sitting comfortably in his apartment, Mike Lawrence stole a glance at his graduation cap sitting on his kitchen table âÄî a reminder of the ceremony that happened only a few weeks prior.

Like many students, Lawrence took more than the traditional four years to get his degree. But the unorthodox nature of his degree in senior theater suited Lawrence, an unusual student. HeâÄôs 84 years old.

Along with a cap and gown, Lawrence had a cane as he crossed the Ted Mann Concert Hall to graduate this May after two decades of on-and-off academia.

Sitting on stage at the ceremony, LawrenceâÄôs senior academic adviser JoAnn Hanson saw the graduateâÄôs joy.

With his diploma in hand, Lawrence turned to the audience and raised his cane in the air, as if to say, âÄúI did it!âÄù

The âÄògrievous errorâÄô

When Lawrence graduated from a Jamestown, N.D., high school in 1945, college wasnâÄôt next in line on his to-do list.

He joined the Navy immediately for a 14-month âÄúpleasure cruiseâÄù âÄî relatively short, he said âÄî from the U.S. to the Subic Bay naval base in the Philippines and back again.

This experience earned him access to the GI Bill, which paid for three years of his college.

âÄúI had no real thoughts about going to college before I got out [of the Navy], but the GI Bill was such an easy way to do it,âÄù he said.

So Lawrence attended Jamestown College, also in North Dakota, for three semesters before he decided he needed to go out and earn more money to finish school.

Looking back, he called this a âÄúgrievous errorâÄù that 18- and 19-year-olds were prone to commit.

âÄúThe upshot of that is I never made it back to college,âÄù he said with a chuckle. Not right away, at least.

He started working as a locomotive fireman for the Northern Pacific Railway. But after three years, he decided it wasnâÄôt the right job for him.

He needed something more people-oriented, he said. âÄúNot just sit behind an engine for five or six or 10 hours and turn knobs. That was such a boring kind of thing.âÄù

A growing family

Before Lawrence stopped working on the railroad, he met Carolyn Thompson.

By 1950, the two were married and a year later, they had their first of seven children.

âÄúWe started having kids left and right,âÄù Lawrence said.

Lawrence began working in the insurance industry as a state agent for Chubb Group of Insurance Companies. He said the insurance industry appealed to him because of its âÄúcomplexityâÄù and interactions with people.

The company sent Lawrence and his family to Portland, Maine, where he began taking classes as a non-degree student at the University of Southern Maine in pursuit of a specific insurance license.

In 1976, Chubb sent Lawrence and his family to Minneapolis, where in 1980 he began non-degree classes at the University of Minnesota to build up his insurance expertise.

From insurance to music

Last month, Lawrence finished up his college career at the University with a multi-disciplinary degree with course work in theater, music and communication studies âÄî a degree he designed himself through an individualized degree program.

With experience in theater, dance and singing, Lawrence said he wanted to turn those hobbies into a degree.

His interest in music started when he was about 10, living on a small farm near Jamestown. His mother sold a sheep to buy him his first guitar, but his hands were so small that he could hardly hold a chord.

Ken Lawrence, MikeâÄôs brother, remembered times when the brothers would whip out songbooks and sit around entertaining each other on their guitars.

Singing was also a part of MikeâÄôs life, starting in high school and then for 25 years in the Plymouth Congregational Church choir.

Senior theater âÄî the driving force

By 1990, Lawrence was retired âÄî but not from learning.

He soon became interested in senior theater, a form of drama specifically for older adults. Lawrence joined a senior theater group called the New Fogey Follies, which performed vaudeville-style musical comedy routines.

âÄúIt was the most fun IâÄôve ever had in doing anything like that because you could get out on stage and just do silly dumb stuff and people laughed at you,âÄù he said. âÄúThatâÄôs all you needed. It was just a hoot.âÄù

When he joined New Fogey Follies, there was an effort around the country to combine all senior theaters into a central group. Lawrence said this movement was the driving force for his return to college for a degree in 2002.

By then, all of his children had degrees of their own, but that wasnâÄôt LawrenceâÄôs reason to return to school.

âÄúI think I had a yen to do more in theater,âÄù he said.

On top of his career, his education was another side to LawrenceâÄôs life, Hanson said. âÄúThatâÄôs what he was doing at the University âÄî taking advantage of the things he loves.âÄù

Next up: jazz

Lawrence lived off campus in Minneapolis with his wife for all of his time at the University. While he said it makes sense to live on campus at least for the first year, getting immersed wasnâÄôt his goal. He was there solely for theater.

Lawrence recalled a few older students in his classes âÄî âÄúbut not anywhere near as old as I,âÄù he said. For the most part, he never felt that his white-haired presence brought negative reactions from the younger students.

Only once, in a business-related class did he feel like he stood out, he said.

âÄúI could sense a little, âÄòWhat the hell is this old guy doing in our class? Does he know where he is?âÄôâÄù he said laughing. âÄúBut it never bothered me.âÄù

Lawrence said taking classes was a wonderful way for him to go into retirement, and now that he has his degree, heâÄôs already planning the next task on his to-do list: Musical studies in jazz, he said.