Lifelong love of learning: 80-year-old graduates with Classics degree from UT


AUSTIN (KXAN) — As of this December, 80-year-old Terry Orr of Austin can now say he proudly holds a Bachelors of Arts in Classical Archaeology from the University of Texas at Austin.

For the first chapter of his life, he used his bachelor’s and master’s in engineering from Texas A&M to allow him to earn money, but he went back to school in pursuit of a liberal arts education and for the love of learning.

Orr was inspired in part by his wife Patricia, who went back to school after their two eldest children had graduated from high school. He said obtaining his degree has given him more things to talk about with his wife who researches medieval history. At UT, Orr studied Greek, Latin, medical terminology and he even went with the university on an archaeological dig in Romania.

“When I was a teenager, the state of Texas had 6 million people,” Orr said. “I read a couple days ago we have topped 28 million people in the state of Texas. For a person like me, I better adapt, I better find out what’s going on around me. I better see what the rest of the world is like, or my egg is gonna get cracked.”

Orr found himself writing college application essays at the age of 76, competing with many students young enough to be his grandkids. “Often, I was sort of a nickel short on response time, on coming up with, ‘What’s this answer?'” Orr said laughing.

He didn’t enter the degree program to “tread water,” his goal was to graduate. Along the way, he worked as a teaching assistant on campus.

Thomas Palaima, the Armstrong Professor of Classics at the University of Austin, knew Orr as a student as well as through their mutual work in the Warrior Chorus project. Through Warrior Chorus, which is funded by the National Endowment of Humanities, veterans like Orr worked with Palaima to talk about their experiences and share them with the public.

Out of the nearly 15,000 students, Palaima estimates he has taught, Orr stands out, and not jut because he was the oldest. Palaima described Orr as having, “a sense that you move through life trying to help others and to be connected with others.”

The professor teared up speaking about Orr as a student, then continued, “I think that’s really a forgotten aspect of education.”

He fears that in higher education in 2017, there is more of a concentration on giving students the tools they need to work, sometimes at the expense of giving students the tools they need to be lifelong learners. Palaima would love to see more seniors in the U.S. pursuing higher education. He also hopes to continue seeing students with the same genuine sense of wonder about the world Orr displays.

Now that Orr has his UT degree, he is weighing what he wants to do with it. He may take on another job or he might go on more archaeological expeditions.

“There’s only really only 4 or 5 times in a person’s life that you have an opportunity to make some decisions [about the path] that you’re gonna follow for several years, and I kind of think I’m at one of those points,” he noted.

He hopes his venture at going back to school encourages both his younger classmates and his senior peers to consider returning to the classroom.

“I told myself a long time ago, ‘I don’t want to grow up and be a disgruntled old man,'” he said, “I’m gonna try and understand why people are thinking what they’re thinking today.”

Orr’s tuition was waived through a law which allows Texans age 65 or older free tuition for six credit hours or more. He was able to complete his degree in around four an a half years. The University of Texas has been offering the program for several years.

Orr worked active duty as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army from 1961-1963 and a captain in the Army Reserves. He also worked in offshore equipment in both the U.S and in the Middle East, he went on to run his own business. Orr’s interests vary widely, he served as mayor of Bastrop and also has received his black belt. It was at age 76 in his third term as mayor that he decided to go back to school.

Orr has three children and is now a grandfather as well. When his children were younger, he would give them money when they earned good grades in school. Now Orr’s youngest daughter, who studied Greek at UT, has been doing the same for him: giving him $1 for every C, $2 for every B, an $5 for every day. Orr said with a smile he’s still waiting to collect the $5 from her for his last semester, it’s $5 he never plans on spending.

UT Austin reports that the average age of undergraduates in the fall of 2017 was 20.2 years old. Out of a total of 40,492 undergraduates in the fall of 2017, 43 of them were 51 and over and 16 of them were 65 and older.

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