Sitting comfortably in his apartment, Mike Lawrence stole a glance at his graduation cap sitting on his kitchen table — a reminder of the ceremony that happened only a few weeks prior.
Like many students, Lawrence took more than the traditional four years to get his degree. But the unorthodox nature of his degree in senior theater suited Lawrence, an unusual student. He’s 84 years old.
Along with a cap and gown, Lawrence had a cane as he crossed the Ted Mann Concert Hall to graduate this May after two decades of on-and-off academia.
Sitting on stage at the ceremony, Lawrence’s senior academic adviser JoAnn Hanson saw the graduate’s joy.
With his diploma in hand, Lawrence turned to the audience and raised his cane in the air, as if to say, “I did it!”
The ‘grievous error’
When Lawrence graduated from a Jamestown, N.D., high school in 1945, college wasn’t next in line on his to-do list.
He joined the Navy immediately for a 14-month “pleasure cruise” — relatively short, he said — from the U.S. to the Subic Bay naval base in the Philippines and back again.
This experience earned him access to the GI Bill, which paid for three years of his college.
“I had no real thoughts about going to college before I got out [of the Navy], but the GI Bill was such an easy way to do it,” he said.
So Lawrence attended Jamestown College, also in North Dakota, for three semesters before he decided he needed to go out and earn more money to finish school.
Looking back, he called this a “grievous error” that 18- and 19-year-olds were prone to commit.
“The upshot of that is I never made it back to college,” he said with a chuckle. Not right away, at least.
He started working as a locomotive fireman for the Northern Pacific Railway. But after three years, he decided it wasn’t the right job for him.
He needed something more people-oriented, he said. “Not just sit behind an engine for five or six or 10 hours and turn knobs. That was such a boring kind of thing.”
A growing family
Before Lawrence stopped working on the railroad, he met Carolyn Thompson.
By 1950, the two were married and a year later, they had their first of seven children.
“We started having kids left and right,” Lawrence said.
Lawrence began working in the insurance industry as a state agent for Chubb Group of Insurance Companies. He said the insurance industry appealed to him because of its “complexity” and interactions with people.
The company sent Lawrence and his family to Portland, Maine, where he began taking classes as a non-degree student at the University of Southern Maine in pursuit of a specific insurance license.
In 1976, Chubb sent Lawrence and his family to Minneapolis, where in 1980 he began non-degree classes at the University of Minnesota to build up his insurance expertise.
From insurance to music
Last month, Lawrence finished up his college career at the University with a multi-disciplinary degree with course work in theater, music and communication studies — a degree he designed himself through an individualized degree program.
With experience in theater, dance and singing, Lawrence said he wanted to turn those hobbies into a degree.
His interest in music started when he was about 10, living on a small farm near Jamestown. His mother sold a sheep to buy him his first guitar, but his hands were so small that he could hardly hold a chord.
Ken Lawrence, Mike’s brother, remembered times when the brothers would whip out songbooks and sit around entertaining each other on their guitars.
Singing was also a part of Mike’s life, starting in high school and then for 25 years in the Plymouth Congregational Church choir.
Senior theater — the driving force
By 1990, Lawrence was retired — but not from learning.
He soon became interested in senior theater, a form of drama specifically for older adults. Lawrence joined a senior theater group called the New Fogey Follies, which performed vaudeville-style musical comedy routines.
“It was the most fun I’ve ever had in doing anything like that because you could get out on stage and just do silly dumb stuff and people laughed at you,” he said. “That’s all you needed. It was just a hoot.”
When he joined New Fogey Follies, there was an effort around the country to combine all senior theaters into a central group. Lawrence said this movement was the driving force for his return to college for a degree in 2002.
By then, all of his children had degrees of their own, but that wasn’t Lawrence’s reason to return to school.
“I think I had a yen to do more in theater,” he said.
On top of his career, his education was another side to Lawrence’s life, Hanson said. “That’s what he was doing at the University — taking advantage of the things he loves.”
Next up: jazz
Lawrence lived off campus in Minneapolis with his wife for all of his time at the University. While he said it makes sense to live on campus at least for the first year, getting immersed wasn’t his goal. He was there solely for theater.
Lawrence recalled a few older students in his classes — “but not anywhere near as old as I,” he said. For the most part, he never felt that his white-haired presence brought negative reactions from the younger students.
Only once, in a business-related class did he feel like he stood out, he said.
“I could sense a little, ‘What the hell is this old guy doing in our class? Does he know where he is?’” he said laughing. “But it never bothered me.”
Lawrence said taking classes was a wonderful way for him to go into retirement, and now that he has his degree, he’s already planning the next task on his to-do list: Musical studies in jazz, he said.
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