Get Your Social On

Monday, August 15, 2011

87-year-old student earns doctorate from Florida International University

Who said it was too late to go back to school? Certainly not Richard Smith, a 87-year-young graduate of Florida International University.

The retired World War II pilot turned businessman from Boca Raton was never interested in playing tennis or golf like most Florida retirees so to stay busy during the golden years Richard Smith went back to school to earn his doctorate in American History. Smith received his degree Saturday, nearly 10 years after he got his masters from Florida Atlantic University. “It’s a good way to stay young,” Smith said.

But what does a 87-year-old do with a doctorate? “I like the idea of research. I will probably find another topic and research it,” Smith said. He also may become a teacher, “I might be of some value in the schools” he added.

The Boston-area native never gave much thought about earning his PhD. Shortly after finishing his freshman year at the University of Pennsylvania, Smith was called to fight in WWII. His first assignment was to patrol the shores of Miami Beach to stop any Germans who tried to invade U.S. Territory. 

Smith's next deployment wouldn't be so cushy as he ended up being part of a unit that flew planes at night, dropping bombs on Germany and spies into Norway, Denmark and Sweden. But his dedicated work paid off and he received the Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Medal for his service. “At the time, our interest was ‘Fly at night, get down, go to the nearest pub, and wait to get called for the next mission,’ ” Smith said.

When Smith returned to home he went to the University Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business where he utilized the GI bill to get his undergraduate degree. Smith and his brother ran their father’s clothing business until retirement at age 70. “I never gave [academics] a thought during my working years,” he said. “I never imagined I’d go back to school.”

The idea to return back to school was when Smith's wife of 34 years, Zenaida Hernandez Smith saw a senior citizens program at FAU, and urged him to enroll. Richard took his wife's advice and enrolled himself in a few classes and was on the way to earning his masters.

For six more years Smith commuted from Boca Raton to FIU’s main campus once a week where he kept working towards his PhD with a focus on the Reconstruction Era. “They treated me like one of the guys,” Smith said, with no special attention to his age. “Except sometimes they’d hold the door.”

Chapter by chapter Smith handwrote his entire 160-page dissertation on the Civil War era politician John Sherman, then typed it up and sent it to his advisor, American History Professor Darden Asbury Pyron. At the time Pyron was working on a biography of the Civil War’s Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman and John was his kid brother. “In some ways John Sherman’s work is more important than the general’s, and Smith’s work helped elucidate this to me,” Pyron said. “This team of politics and military, no other family produced anything like that.”

Smith's 3 daughters flew down from Massachusetts and North Carolina to watch his graduation ceremony but his 7 grandchildren and 3 young great-grandchildren could not make the event.
“They’re all half amazed and just very proud,” Smith said. “I really have been a very fortunate man.”

No comments:

Post a Comment