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BOWLING GREEN — Exam week at Bowling Green State University brought the usual late-semester swirl of students in T-shirts and flip flops to the student union, where young people hunched over laptops or chatted quietly.
Dick Larabee sat at a table near a second-floor window. He could see the blooming campus outside and fellow classmates burrowed in books inside.
Many wore earphones as they studied; Mr. Larabee had a hearing aid.
At age 79, the Waterville grandfather of 16 puts the senior in senior citizen. He’s about to check off a longtime goal: Graduate from college with a bachelor of liberal studies.
University officials believe Mr. Larabee will be the oldest person to earn a degree from BGSU when he accepts his diploma at a Saturday commencement ceremony. He joins a class of 1,814 undergraduate students, most of them much younger with careers and identities to find after graduation.
Mr. Larabee has plans too — a future fit for a retiree. He and his wife, Kathleen, are grabbing their camper and going to Maine.
They want a little break. He spent the last semester cramming in a 15-credit course load: Three history classes, a sociology class, and constitutional law class. She read his papers before he turned them in, warning him if the writing was dull.
The work must have been solid. Mr. Larabee is on the verge of earning straight A’s this semester, though he was a little concerned about that constitutional law class.
“I know that when I walk across that stage that I’m going to be... proud that I have done this,” he said.
His educational journey dates to 1952, when he graduated from Cathedral Latin School in Cleveland. He spent a semester at the University of Dayton but left; 17 was too young for serious studies.
He launched his career with an apprenticeship at TRW Inc., where he learned to be a journeyman machinist. It wasn’t the job he wanted for the rest of his life, so he started taking night classes at Fenn College, which later became Cleveland State University.
Life and career changes and more children put college on hold. He moved to northwest Ohio to work in human resources for The Andersons, and then returned to college as a full-time BGSU student in the early 1980s. He took one class with his daughter Ann Larabee, then a Bowling Green undergrad and now an English professor at Michigan State University.
The two signed up for a computer languages course together for fun.
“I seem to remember him helping me,” she said. “My dad was always actively engaged in learning something… . He took apart cars in the garage because he got into auto mechanics …; he got into fly fishing and started tying his own flies.”
When money ran out, Mr. Larabee went back to work. He and a couple partners started a plastics injection molding business in Indiana and retired around 2000.
Last year, he started thinking about college again. A degree wouldn’t get him another job or make him more money, but that wasn’t the point.
He told his wife: “It would really be good for my soul if I could just go back to school and finish up.”
When he walked onto Bowling Green’s campus in January, he hadn’t been in a classroom for about 30 years.
“I had to relearn how to learn. I had to develop some study habits that were better than just sitting in my easy chair reading,” he said.
He may have been the “old dude” in class, but Mr. Larabee found that if he reached out to fellow students they treated him as a peer. His experience helped change the dynamic of a World War II class because Mr. Larabee had vivid memories of the period, such as how the media depicted the Japanese and Germans, history professor Mike Carver said.
“He really fit right in. There wasn’t this kind of sense that Dick was an elder statesmen, that we had to be kind of reverent,” he said.
Mr. Larabee was well prepared too. He turned in his take-home final exam a week early, Mr. Carver said.
Her father approaches every undertaking wholeheartedly, Julie Baumgardner said.
“We are just really proud of him that he went back and he did what he wanted to do,” she said. “He’s always encouraged us any way he could.”
His family is planning a graduation party for Mr. Larabee, but he’s not finished with his education. He wants to take a class or two each winter at BGSU. He’s interested in history, computers, creative writing, and math.
“There’s so much to learn,” he said.