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78-year-old Essex Junction man proves it’s never too late to get a degree

Updated: May. 14, 2021 at 8:15 AM EDT
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ESSEX JUNCTION, Vt. (WCAX) - Getting a college degree is no easy feat, and one Essex Junction septuagenarian took a bit longer than average to get his. Now, after years of work, Tom Helmstutler finally had the chance to walk across the stage for his diploma.

Tom Helmstutler was no stranger to education. “Over the years, we had a community college, I took classes there. We had a community college over the line I took classes from,” Helmstutler said.

But after a semester at William & Mary in Virginia in the early ’60s, and pursured a diploma from the National Business School, a career in accounting and everyday life took precedence. “It worked out fine,” said Helmstutler said.

He never looked back with regret and even helped support his wife, Elaine, through her own college degree. “He sacrificed to put me through school, then the girls, and it really worked out quite beautifully,” said Elaine.

But then came the COVID-19 confusion. They say they spent their stimulus checks on a burial plot and a 68″ flat-screen TV, but Tom also had ambitions. “I was the one that brought it up and suggested it would be an excellent time to do it,” said Elaine. “A lot of time, some extra money, and a dream -- that’s all it took for Tom to go back and finish something he started nearly 50 years earlier.”

Marshall University was the perfect fit, and had the perfect program he was looking for. “I was just really impressed by them,” Helmstutler said. He turned the kitchen table into a desk. After a little learning curve and a little help from Elaine, he submmited everything on time. “I told Elaine, ‘I see now why kids throw their stuff out the window on the last day of school.’”

He went down to the West Virginia school for the graduation ceremony. “It is just so thrilling, it really was, We were just so proud,” said Elaine.

“It was thrilling really, it was. But just to move that tassel over, it was just an electric feeling,” Helmstutler said. He has no plans to do much with his Bachelor of Arts degree. “Although they say people with degrees make a lot more money, I’m gonna wait and see how that pans out.”

But now he can say... “It dawned on me, ya know, we are through,” Helmstutler said.

Despite the challenges, the Helmstutlers hope it serves as a simple reminder. “I would encourage people if they have dreams -- go after them. This one only gives me a sense of accomplishment, and I’m in the autumn of my years and that’s what I wanted and that’s what I got so...” Helmstutler said.

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