After 55-year break, 75-year-old student completes SMC degree

After 55-year break, 75-year-old student completes SMC degree

When John Starnes inquired about returning to Spartanburg Methodist College (SMC) after dropping out over 50 years ago, he was presented with a “good news, bad news” scenario by college administrators:

The good news was that credits he earned way back in the early 1960s would still count toward the completion of his degree. The bad news? His grades from back then still counted, too, and they weren’t great. Starnes would need to work hard to bring up his GPA in order to graduate.

By his own description, Starnes was “a poor student” in his youth. Instead of studying, he was more interested in marrying his girlfriend Betsy (a student at Lander College) and going to work back home in Winnsboro, South Carolina.

His mother wasn’t too happy about his decision to leave SMC, but he assured her that he would finish his associate degree one day.

Over five decades later, after Starnes retired from a successful career in real estate, he and Betsy decided to move from western North Carolina to Spartanburg. Their daughter had settled in Greenville – another daughter lives in Seattle – and they wanted to be nearby.

“I wasn’t thinking about SMC when we moved here,” he said. “But then I realized I had a chance to fulfill the promise I made to my mama.”

He called college registrar Jill Johnson to find out if his transcript was even still on file. It was, so Starnes set up a meeting to explore next steps. “(Johnson) had it all laid for me, and she really encouraged me,” he said.

Starnes, whose career was mostly focused in resort communities around the Southeast, has worked hard since re-enrolling in 2014. He has taken one course a semester and found both professors and students to be encouraging and welcoming.

“They don’t seem to mind my being there,” he said, humbly.

On the contrary, he was a valuable addition to class, said Jonathan Sedberry, an English professor who first taught Starnes in a class composed mostly of students who had taken time away from school.

“Most students’ breaks ranged from a semester to two years, far short of John’s fifty-year-plus break,” Sedberry explained. “His willingness to tell his story comforted and inspired all of the students, but I think those who were returning took special note. They exhibited a ‘if he can, I can’ attitude, which had nothing to do with John’s age and everything to do with his persistence and exuberance.”

Starnes shared life experiences and was always willing to add his perspective to class discussions. Recalling an American Literature course, Sedberry said, “When the discussion turned to various taboo subjects explored by American authors, one student noted the oddity of discussing such subjects with a professor. Without missing a beat, John asked her how she felt discussing those subjects in front of her ‘grandfather.’ We had a good laugh.”

For his part, Starnes said that it’s “a good feeling when you can contribute to the discussion.”

He admits that he was a little nervous to be back in school. He says he found professors at SMC to be patient and helpful. Computer Science was especially daunting, but with guidance from professor Linda Bradley, he came out with a ‘B.’

“This has been a wonderful experience,” he said, adding, “It’s harder now at this age – but I’m making much better grades.”

On Saturday, May 6, Starnes will cross the stage in Bridges Arena on the SMC campus to receive his diploma for an Associate Degree in Arts. He plans to stay on at SMC to take more classes in pursuit of an Associate Degree in Religion.

Despite his educational commitments, Starnes said he’s not aiming for a second career – just more knowledge and connection with professors and fellow students. As he’s come to find out this time around, “I enjoy going to school.”

He believes other adults would, too, if they can make the time and are willing to dive in. He said, “I would recommend to someone at any age to go back and learn and share.”

– Story by Baker Maultsby

John Starnes
“I would recommend to someone at any age to go back and learn and share.”John Starnes