SALEM — Academy Award-winning actress Geena Davis was a graduation speaker and the star attraction at yesterday's commencement at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine.
But Carl "Lefty" Harris surely turned a few heads.
The 75-year-old Salem resident, with gray hair visible under his graduation cap, was awarded a bachelor's degree yesterday as a member of the Class of 2009. Not bad for a guy who dropped out of Bates in 1954 to join the Army.
All these decades later, after getting married, raising a family, working as an insurance executive, running the former T.R. Kerr Furniture company, opening the former Finkle's restaurant, traveling the country handling business liquidations, and splitting his time between here and Florida, Harris decided to return to Bates to get his degree.
"I'm the kind of person who never quits at anything," he said.
He is the second-oldest graduate in Bates history.
Between 2007 and last fall, he took six courses, getting all A's and B's. He attended college as a commuter, traveling 250 miles round-trip from his Essex Street home to the Maine campus.
"I figure I drove 62 times up and back," said Harris, the owner of a 2003 Lincoln LS.
He would leave before dawn, stay a night or two in a bed-and-breakfast, and often return in the wee hours of the morning. He liked to drive in the dark when there was no traffic.
"I'm not a good sleeper," he said.
The idea of returning to college came to him four years ago when classmates starting calling to ask if he was going back for the 50th reunion of the Class of 1955 — his original class.
A 1950 graduate of Salem High, Harris had gone to Tilton, a prep school in New Hampshire. He played football and basketball and was recruited by Bates, then left college in the second semester of his junior year.
"I think I just had my fill of it and wanted to do something else," he said during an interview at the Front Street Coffee Shop.
It took some persuading, but Harris finally agreed to attend his class's 50-year reunion even though he hadn't been back in all those years.
That's when he started thinking about the diploma that eluded him.
"I called up the president of the school," Harris said. He told her: "I'd like to have an interview with you when I go to reunion."
Elaine Tuttle Hansen, the college's seventh president, and a college vice president met with Harris, setting in motion his return after more than a half-century.
Harris had to be readmitted, which meant writing a paper, a life history.
He had to find transcripts of night courses he took years ago at the University of Georgia and Northeastern University for additional credit.
He picked up his old major, political science, which was now called "politics," and signed up for courses in women and gender studies and African-American studies. He wrote his senior thesis on black athletes breaking the color barrier in professional sports and focused on the Boston Celtics, a team he grew up with.
"I am a sports nut," he said.
Getting back in the swing of things was tough. He wasn't ready for 200-page reading assignments and 20-page papers.
"I felt my memory retention was really lousy," he said. "I'd read the homework and forget it almost instantly."
Just getting around campus was hard.
"They have two or three times the buildings they used to have," he said. "I couldn't find my way around. I couldn't find the dining hall."
And when he found the dining hall, he had trouble getting inside.
"I'd have to show my (college) I.D. to people," he said. "They didn't believe I was a student."
In time, Harris started to enjoy his classes, most of which were small seminars where he got to talk.
"I'd talk about Martin Luther King and the Korean War ... things (that happened) when they weren't alive. So I think it was good for the students."
Harris even made friends among the student body.
After he mentioned that he played basketball at Tilton and Bates, one student waited for him after class. It was Marshall Hatch, star of the basketball team.
"We became friends," Harris said. "He's coming to my graduation."
Harris says he has a lot of people to thank, too many to count.
He couldn't have made it without his wife, Sunny, who supported him all the way. "She's a wonderful person."
He also got encouragement from his three sons, Steve, Ron and Dave.
At Bates, professors, administrators and his adviser all provided helping hands. A vice president's secretary took care of all the little details.
"She was just like my own secretary," he said.
He got an incredible amount of help from a granddaughter, Stefanie Harris, a Beverly High senior.
He would write his papers in longhand, and she would type them on the computer and print them out.
"I'd put it in (her) mailbox and go back Sunday and get it," he said. "We had a routine."
Although he received his diploma 54 years late, Harris is proud that he stuck with it, proud to be a Bates graduate.
"I've had a few people say to me, 'Why don't you just go to Salem State College? You could walk there,'" he said.
"I didn't want a degree from anywhere but Bates, and I wanted the Bates degree I didn't get in 1955."