Kennesaw State’s oldest graduate still takes his own advice
KENNESAW, Ga. (Jun 9, 2016) — “My advice to today's graduates is exactly the same as what I gave them in my Commencement address, ‘Take Action!’” said Arthur Harris, who first delivered those words to the Kennesaw State University Class of 2008.
“I told them there are too many ‘coulda, woulda, shouldas’ in our lives that could have been avoided if we had the courage to move ahead at the moment of opportunity.”
Harris, who turns 90 on June 13, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English from Kennesaw State in the summer of 2007 when he was 81, achieving the distinction of the oldest person to graduate from the University.
Three years after delivering his Commencement speech, having followed his own advice, he earned a Master of Arts in Professional Writing in Fall 2011 at 85 years old, becoming the oldest Kennesaw State student to receive a master’s degree.
Looking back on the beginning of his KSU educational journey, he recalled some initial trepidation.
“The biggest challenge I faced,” he recalled, “was being able to cope with being part of a much younger student body. That quickly dissipated, however, when I found everyone ready and eager to help an old guy who was computer illiterate, had two fake hips, one fake knee and was hard of hearing. The teachers and the students were fantastic!”
For his master’s thesis, Harris wrote a memoir in which he described how as a teenager in the Bronx he met his future wife, Sydell, and impetuously rubbed snow in her face. An apology and some hot chocolate helped him ease back into her good graces. They celebrated their 67th wedding anniversary May 16, so apparently it all worked out.
In many ways, Harris’ memoir reads like an old-fashioned American fable, except that it’s true.
When Harris was in his early 70s, the New York native achieved great success as the co-founder – along with his wife and his children Richard and Karen – of Atlanta’s Spa Sydell chain of spa facilities.
In 2002, the Buckhead Business Association recognized the company with the Retail Business of the Year Award, but there was still some unfinished business for Harris.
At a time when many people consider their retirement options, Harris decided to pursue something that’s been missing from his life: a college education. A chance visit to the Kennesaw State campus to tour an art exhibit led to a turning point in his plans to get his bachelor’s degree.
“The campus was love at first sight,” the Buckhead resident recalled. “I visited with a friend to see the Ruth Zuckerman marble sculptures on exhibit and, on a whim, dropped into the registrar’s office to ask some questions.
“When I found out that the Hope Scholarship covered seniors’ tuition, it sealed the deal on the spot,” he said. “I would finally be able to scratch the itch that had stayed with me since my youth.”
“My eight years at KSU remain a storehouse of treasured events, culminating in the Study Abroad program at Montepulciano, Italy, where Sydell and I spent five wonderful weeks along with 50 young students, and the wonderful faculty headed by Dr. Howard Shealy. Something I would recommend to every student who can possibly make it.
“Most seniors shake their heads in wonderment when I describe my experiences at KSU and the feeling of accomplishment that went with them, but, for me, it was not any great achievement; simply a lovely journey.”
Now happily retired, Harris and his wife live in Atlanta’s Chastain Park neighborhood and enjoy visiting with family and friends and performing their various volunteer activities.
Education continues to be an important pastime for Harris.
“I still spend a lot of time reading, as I have all my life,” he said. “I read aloud to a kindergarten class at Garden Hills Elementary School, and to a wonderful group of wheelchair-bound residents at the Bremen Jewish Home. Sydell and I have also been involved with Shepherd Center and Camp Sunshine for over 30 years.”
Exercise, too, is an important ritual for the couple.
“I work out sporadically,” he said, “but am far from disciplined.”
Part of that exercise regimen involves tossing a basketball with his wife.
Harris’ son Richard said, “My mother took a liking to a basketball in my office 10 years ago, and they’ve been throwing that basketball back and forth to each other ever since. It’s a regular part of their lives now. They’ll do it for 300-400 times, both of them throwing and talking and laughing.”
“I’ve learned so much from my parents,” said Richard. “They’ve found the fountain of youth is the ability to learn new things.”
A leader in innovative teaching and learning, Kennesaw State University offers undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees to its nearly 43,000 students. With 11 colleges on two metro Atlanta campuses, Kennesaw State is a member of the University System of Georgia. The university’s vibrant campus culture, diverse population, strong global ties and entrepreneurial spirit draw students from throughout the country and the world. Kennesaw State is a Carnegie-designated doctoral research institution (R2), placing it among an elite group of only 6 percent of U.S. colleges and universities with an R1 or R2 status. For more information, visit kennesaw.edu.