After 50 Years, U.Va. Dreams Fulfilled For Oldest Grad Jim Cecil

May 19, 2009 – Ever since he graduated from high school in 1960, Jim Cecil dreamed of working for or graduating from the University of Virginia — even though all of his family are Virginia Tech fans.

After living in the Roanoke area for the first 60 years of his life, he moved to Charlottesville in 2002 to start living his dream of working at U.Va. On Sunday, after six years of evening classes, he fulfilled the second part of his dream, receiving a Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies degree from the School of Continuing and Professional Studies.

For years, Cecil, 67, told friends and coworkers that he'd walk the Lawn and retire on the same day. But the oldest undergraduate in U.Va.'s Class of 2009 won't be retiring for at least a few more years, because he's still having too much fun living his dream.

"I love being here and being part of the University," Cecil said. "I'd almost work for nothing, because I love my job, I love U.Va., I love the people I work with."

While working at U.Va. as an accounts receivable specialist has been a dream come true for Cecil, heading back into the classroom to finish his undergraduate degree more than 30 years after he had last taken college classes (at the U.Va. Extension Center in Roanoke and two other Roanoke-area colleges) may be the best thing he's ever done, Cecil said — adding with a smile that he hopes his wife of 35 years doesn't read that.

Besides getting a kick out of occasionally being mistaken for a professor, taking classes with fellow students mostly in their 20s and 30s has been rejuvenating, he said. "I've probably never really grown up," he explained.

Although the soft-spoken Cecil focuses on how he has benefited from his classmates, the benefits have been mutual, according to his teachers.

"A true gentleman, Jim Cecil contributes to the learning of his classmates with generosity and candor," said Charlotte Matthews, a writing instructor in the SCPS. "Effulgence emanates from him as he strives to gain all he can from the subjects before him."

Cecil's professors also admire how he has persevered through several serious health crises. In the spring of 2007, he suddenly collapsed at home and was paralyzed from the waist down, due to degenerative spinal problems. After a nine-hour operation in which bone from his shin was used to reinforce his spine, Cecil spent nine months in intensive physical therapy relearning how to walk.

He missed a few classes, but still earned his credits that semester. "I'm not one of these people who want to sit on the front porch in a rocker," he said. "You either give up, or you do what you need to do to get back."

Even two heart attacks did little to slow Cecil down. After the second, he was back in class the next day and didn't bother to tell his teachers until weeks later.

"Jim has faced some serious health issues that would have daunted most of us, but he carried on with determination and an optimistic and uncomplaining spirit," said Ann Marie Plunkett, a SCPS faculty member in social sciences.

On top of working full time and overcoming health challenges on his six-year journey to his degree, Cecil earned a 3.8 grade-point average and induction into the Alpha Sigma Lambda National Honor Society.

For Cecil, U.Va. represents a standard of excellence. "A gentleman once told me, 'Everything you do in life, do it with quality,' and I think that's what the University of Virginia does."

— By Brevy Cannon