Pre-calculus. Statistics. Anything with math was tough.
Jazz class — a requirement, not an interest — was a struggle.
And homework? An all-consuming challenge.
But on Saturday George Bilodeau walked across the graduation stage and received his degree in industrial technology from the University of Southern Maine.
At age 76.
“Yes,” Bilodeau joked. “I’m ancient.”
For the past four years, Bilodeau has been a student at USM, most often taking classes at USM’s Lewiston-Auburn College in Lewiston, most often with classmates young enough to be his grandchildren. It began — with some prodding from his wife — as a way for the Buckfield man to get out of the house after he stopped working.
It ended up as a way for him to prove to himself and others that he could do something as daunting as earn a college degree.
Even a major heart attack six weeks ago — and a four-week stay in the hospital, much of that in intensive care — couldn’t keep him from accepting his diploma Saturday.
“I’m still pretty weak, but I’m strong enough to march across that stage and get that degree,” he said a few days before the graduation ceremony in Portland. “Wild horses couldn’t keep me off that stage.”
Born and raised in Gorham, N.H., Bilodeau attended Gorham High School. He enjoyed elementary school and his grades were good, but his home life, he said, was harsh and his grades in high school suffered. In 1951, between his junior and senior years, Bilodeau dropped out and joined the U.S. Navy. He was 17.
For the next 22 years, Bilodeau lived the Navy, ultimately becoming a chief petty officer. He earned his general educational development certificate and then a college-level GED.
Bilodeau retired from the Navy in 1973. A couple of years later, he enrolled in Central Maine Community College in Auburn, then called Central Maine Vocational Technical Institute.
But college was difficult for a military veteran in the wake of the Vietnam War.
“There was discrimination like you’ve never seen in your life,” he said.
Bilodeau stuck with it, earning a certificate from the construction program and then an associate degree in architectural drafting. Over the next three decades he kept learning, training in project management, taking a locksmithing course and studying electrical work to become a master electrician.
Bilodeau married, had children and worked steadily, but he always felt like something was missing. He wanted his high school diploma.
In 2005, Gorham High School awarded him that diploma during the school’s regular commencement ceremony. On his way to graduation, Bilodeau told his wife, Mary, that it felt funny receiving his diploma after 53 years.
“Yeah,” she kidded him. “Some people are slow.”
At the ceremony, he received three standing ovations. He finally had his diploma.
“I was some happy,” he said.
Sometime after that, his wife suggested he go back to school to get his bachelor’s degree. He hadn’t worked since 2004, when knee surgery pushed him into retirement, and his wife nudged him into getting out of the house. Bilodeau was concerned about the cost, but classes throughout the university system are free to Maine residents over 65. He only had to pay for books and student fees.
More than cost, however, Bilodeau was concerned about his acceptance. After his disastrous first attempt at college in the 1970s, he worried the younger students wouldn’t like him, wouldn’t tolerate him.
But from the moment he walked through the door, Bilodeau was embraced.
“All of those young kids accepted me just the way I was,” he said. “They can say what they want about teenagers, but they were really caring. It wasn’t just, ‘Oh, well, we’re going to tolerate him because he’s in the class.’ Not at all.”
Bilodeau often found himself in classes with 20-somethings. In algebra, one classmate was 16.
“He’s so energetic and vibrant; you don’t think of an age when you think of George,” said Paul G. Caron, an associate professor of math and physics. “It wasn’t the old man in the corner there. He was involved in group work and things. They really respected him because he is a wise person.”
For about four years Bilodeau took two or three classes each semester — college writing, American history, macroeconomics. Math classes were a struggle because Bilodeau has problems with his short-term memory. Jazz also proved challenging, but for a different reason.
“I’m an old hillbilly lover from back in the ’50s,” he said. “Country and western. But I got an ‘A’ in it. Darn right I did.”
The hardest part of all? Getting all the homework done.
“It seemed like each instructor we had thought that theirs was the only class you were in,” he said. “That’s what it seemed like. They’d really load you down with the homework.”
Bilodeau found the time to do it, though, and do it well. His grades were so good that he made the dean’s list.
And his recent hospital stay didn’t affect his graduation timeline. In one class his grades were so high that the missed time didn’t matter. In the second, he only has to take a test to get a final grade.
Bilodeau will take that test as soon as possible. Since he was so close to finishing his course work, USM policy allowed him to graduate with his class.
On Saturday, in full cap and gown, Bilodeau received his bachelor’s degree, becoming the oldest member of USM’s Class of 2010.
“The adrenaline flowed when they had us change the tassel from the right side to the left side,” he said. “The adrenaline just flowed like hell, because I knew it was too late for them to call it back now.”
Bilodeau isn’t sure what he will do now, though he has ruled out getting a master’s degree. He’s worried about taxing his health.
Besides, he said, he’s happy with his bachelor’s.
“When I crossed that stage I thought, ‘This is it. Finally,'” he said.