At age 65, with no college credits, Walter Block enrolled at UConn’s Stamford campus; he will celebrate his 72nd year by receiving a BA in history during May’s Commencement.
Block joked about why he chose to major in history. “Since I’d lived through so much, I thought it would be easy. My general level of knowledge is reasonably strong, if I judge by how well I do on Jeopardy.”
But Block’s real reason for choosing his field of study is profound. “My strong interest in history is because of the Holocaust and WW II. My father’s entire family was wiped out. My mother lost a substantial part of her family as well. I was never far from the subject matter.”
His academic advisor, associate professor of European history Joel Blatt, notes that some of Block’s classes “were right in Walter’s wheelhouse. But here’s a 70-year-old person who committed to doing a huge amount of work. That inspires younger students, and shows the virtues of learning.”
Most nontraditional students return to college with varying amounts of credit. “Walter is rare,” says Blatt, who has been a faculty member for 38 years. “I don’t know if I’ve ever known someone who had no college at all and then began as a senior citizen. Walter systematically got through the requirements to get the degree, which is quite amazing because UConn is demanding.”
Marilyn Block, Walter’s wife of 49 years, says “going to UConn has turned out to be a great adventure for my husband. He struggled with Spanish and math. But because he was in the workforce all his life, he knew how to navigate people. He’d set up study groups so others would help him.”
Block did so well academically that he was inducted into the UConn chapter of the National History Honor Society, Phi Alpha Theta. “One of the things I’m most proud of is that with only six credits left to earn, I have a solid 3.5 GPA,” he says.
A full-time residential realtor, he plans to continue that work upon getting his degree, as well as doing some substitute teaching. “I want to make a difference. I don’t want a job that’s 9-5 all year every day but I have no intention of ever retiring,” Block says. “The thought frightens me.”
And there’s not much that frightens him. In fact, straight out of high school he enlisted in the Navy, where he served on one of the ships blockading Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Having taught Block in several classes, Blatt notes that his student’s sense of humor allowed the professor to pique the class’s interest one day by announcing, “We have someone with us who saved the world.”
According to Block there is one great disadvantage of returning to school after such a long period of time: “My business life trained my brain to bring problems to quick resolutions,” he says, “while when writing a paper the idea is to take a problem and expand upon it. I have had great difficulty with that. Also, I have to write everything out longhand and then type it with two fingers.”
Block launched his business life at Alexander’s Department Store in New York City, joining its executive training program upon being discharged. His career primarily involved the retailing, wholesaling, or manufacturing of women’s handbags, including a period of 10 years when he operated factories. For six or seven years he flew to Maine, Texas, or Mexico on Mondays and flew home on Fridays.
“My husband is an extremely bright man,” says Marilyn Block. “He had the ability to go far, but his high school teachers didn’t give him that extra push. He went on to be a very successful person, but that was by sheer persistence.”
Shortly after his 65th birthday, Block shifted his career to real estate and attended a job-related presentation at UConn’s Stamford campus. There, he learned that tuition at public universities is free to Connecticut residents aged 62 and older.
“When I went off and joined the Navy, I broke my parents’ hearts,” he says. “Sometimes in life you have an epiphany. Learning about the free tuition, I said, ‘Now’s the time to honor their memory.’ And I was always disappointed in myself that I never went to college. This was the right time, right place … right everything.”
Once Block began his long-delayed college studies, there was no stopping him. “Walter was so determined and well-organized,” says Blatt. “Every semester he was the first person to request a meeting with me for advice on which courses to take in the upcoming semester. He was always keenly interested in ‘What do I need to do next?’”
Block never considered taking classes online or just auditing UConn’s classes. “I wanted the whole experience of being in the classroom, the chance to contribute, to interact,” he says.
Block’s eagerness to participate in class discussions also inspired the traditional-age college students who were the majority of his classmates. “He’s one of the best students I’ve ever had in terms of willingness to discuss issues,” Blatt says. “It was a great joy for me to have discussions about significant interpretations of history with someone who is thoughtful and deeply interested. And Walter doesn’t hesitate to be provocative.”
In fact, he thrived on the give-and-take of class discussion. “I am by nature verbal and to some degree and – I mean this in the comedic sense – argumentative,” Block says. “Most of the students are quiet and shy for the most part. My level of participation triggered the students to speak up. I’d always get a rush at the end of the semester, when the other students thanked me for making the class more verbal.”
Block now bleeds Husky blue. “I had a terrific experience at UConn Stamford,” he says. “Both in my general education classes and my history major, whether adjuncts or tenured, the professors were nothing short of phenomenal.”
And thanks to Block, a special sixth grader will be among the proud families witnessing UConn’s Class of ’15 receive degrees. “When I started seven years ago, my goal was to graduate before my granddaughter,” he says. “She was in kindergarten at the time.”
By: Lauren Lalancette | Courtesy of UConn Today