The “senior senior:” 81-year-old becomes Georgia Gwinnett College’s oldest graduate
The nation-wide COVID-19 lockdowns have had heartbreaking effects on graduating college students from coast to coast, with traditional graduations and other cherished events canceled or postponed after years of toiling toward their degrees. Despite all odds, Prescott Lawrence received his degree in business administration with a concentration in management information systems from Georgia Gwinnett College after more than a decade of persistent work.
In doing so he also became, at 81, the oldest graduate in GGC’s history.
“I called myself the ‘senior senior,’” Lawrence laughed during a phone interview from the Grayson home he’s sharing with his son and daughter-in-law during the coronavirus crisis. “I believe learning is a life-long experience. I try to keep my mind and body as active as I can. The mind is like any muscle – you have to exercise it.”
Unlike his much-younger classmates, Lawrence didn’t seek a college education out of necessity. It was simply his natural drive to learn new things that led him to GGC. He chose the college for two reasons, he says.
“One; the Georgia state education system is free for people over 65, and two; I got to have lunch with the first two presidents of the college (Drs. Daniel J. Kaufman and Stanley C. Preczewski), who were both former commanders at West Point. We had some interesting conversations about school which lead me to think maybe I should go ahead and sign up for some classes.”
Lawrence was born in Connecticut in 1938, a month before the infamous New England hurricane known as the “Yankee Clipper” hit the East Coast. He was raised in Falls Church, Virginia, right outside of Washington, D.C., where his parents, James and Virginia, operated the Spence Support Shop which made surgical supports. His father dabbled in politics and became the director of the Pittsburgh chapter of the United Cerebral Palsy Association after Lawrence’s sister was born with the disease.
Lawrence joined the Army National Guard in 1956 as a 17-year-old high school senior. He transitioned to the active-duty Army in 1957 as a radar repairman and served until he received an honorable discharge in 1960 with a three-year inactive reserve obligation. More than a decade later in 1974, he joined the Army Reserve and served as a food service sergeant for 24 years, retiring as a battalion food service sergeant in 1998.
“They put me in for a promotion, but it came back they had to kick me out because I’d just turned 60,” chuckled Lawrence. “I didn’t consider applying for a waiver, because I figured I’d done my time.”
Lawrence worked in food service outside of the Army, too. For more than 30 years, he sold food to restaurants as a distributer, managed several restaurants, and at one point even became an assistant chef at a country club – among many other jobs over the years. Half a century of working hard and providing for his family racked up experience in a wide range of trades.
“My father has always been hardworking,” said Lawrence’s son, Scott Lawrence Jr. “He's been an insurance salesman, a bus driver, a roofer, a painter, a dispatcher . . . he never stopped working.”
He never stopped craving new knowledge, either, and tried his best to instill that same zeal into his children.
“My father read ‘Robin Hood’ to me every night he could,” said Scott Jr. “He arranged to have books sent to the house. These books spanned known history, from the Greeks to the Romans to the Battle of the Bulge. I read about Gettysburg. I read about Valley Forge. I read about Theseus, Hercules, Achilles and so much more because my father wanted his son to be exposed to these things. So even though I wasn't a great student, by the time I got to high school, I had already read many of the things I was tested on. I had exposure to history and literature because of the books my father bought for me in my early life.”
Lawrence has four children. In addition to Scott, he adopted his then-wife Barbara’s two children, Mike and Mischelle, and later took in one of his son’s friends from a broken home, Carl, whom he considers his second son.
Lawrence’s original major was information technology (IT) because he worked with computers at Atlanta Gas Light, his last full-time job, before retiring in 2012.
“I was involved in testing their new customer service system, so I had an interest in computers, and chose IT as my major at first,” he said. “But then we got to the part where I had to take calculus. I tried it three times and wasn’t successful.”
After an aortic aneurysm in 2011 forced him to drop calculus one last time (but not to give up on his education) he switched his major to business administration and his concentration to management information systems.
“I could have taken English or history or music – something that I’m familiar with – but why?” he said. “I wanted to learn something new and challenge myself.”
The field of management information systems is still “pretty tough” but he never doubted he could make it happen at GGC.
“I think it’s an exceptional school,” he said. “I’m kind of conservative, so one of the things I was worried about was the hoopla about all the universities being bastions of liberalism. But even my political science class instructor stuck strictly to the Constitution. Liberal or conservative did not come into it. In the 10 years I was there, I never found anybody try to push either agenda in the classroom. They always presented information objectively.”
When asked if it felt odd to sit in classes with students many decades younger than him, Lawrence said it was surprisingly enjoyable, and he found himself using the opportunity to share a little life experience.
“I’d talk to the younger people and give them my ideas, and they’d give me theirs and it was a good exchange,” he said. “It was interesting because, one of the things I learned very late in life – in my 50s in fact – is making arrangements for retirement should start early. My financial professor thought I was amazing, because I’m the perfect example of what not to do. I didn’t buy a house until I was 66 years old! So, I made it a point to get up in front of all my classes and stress to the young people that now is the time to start putting money away.”
Now that he finally has his degree in hand, he doesn’t plan to end his lifelong pursuit of learning.
“Getting the degree was my original intent and it feels amazing. But good or bad, we’re learning all the time,” he said, noting that he’s already taking some free online courses during his spare time during the lockdown. “So many people get left behind and I don’t want to be a vegetable.”
Son Scott Jr. noted that his dad actually took his first college courses in the late 50's at the California University of Pennsylvania, so his GGC degree truly has been a long time in the making.
“I'm proud of him for sticking it out. He used to say to me, ‘Anything you can conceive and believe, you can achieve.’”
True to form, Lawrence’s love of learning will continue, even when he’s gone.
“I’m donating my body to science when I pass away,” he said. “I told my kids to just dress me up nice, call an Uber and send me to the Emory School of Medicine to do whatever they want with me.”
Lawrence will join more than 800 of his classmates at GGC’s virtual commencement, scheduled for 10 a.m., Aug. 8. The ceremony can be viewed at www.ggc.edu/commencement.