87-Year-Old Richard Smith Earns His Ph.D

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richard smithWhen Richard Smith started college, Bing Crosby was all the rage. When he finished his Ph.D, it was Lil Wayne. Over the weekend, Smith became the oldest person to ever receive a diploma from Florida International University. He's three years shy of 90.

Smith has had one of the most drawn-out love affairs with higher education. He began at the University of Pennsylvania, but then left to fight in World War II, receiving the Air Medal and Distinguished Flying Cross for his Air Corps service.

At the war's end, he resumed his studies at UPenn's Wharton School of Business. Smith then took a several decade hiatus from academia, running the family's clothing business in Miami, marrying, and having three children. But when he retired at 70, he and his wife, Zenaida Hernandez Smith, quickly got bored.

"You can only play so much golf," Smith told AOL Jobs. "You can go to the beach. You can do all those things. But they weren't satisfactory as far as we were concerned."

They spotted a senior citizen's program at Florida Atlantic University. Smith's wife started taking writing and poetry classes, while Smith went for history, "because, to be honest with you, it came at a good hour," he said.

But he had a talent for the subject. As a student of history, it perhaps helped that Smith had witnessed so much of it.

"In many ways he represents what was and still is the Greatest Generation that Tom Brokaw wrote about," said Smith's thesis advisor Steve Engel. "Richard had gone through the humility of the Depression, the sacrifices of World War II, the conservatism of the 50s, the radicalism of the 60s, the who-knows-what of the 70s, the self-absorption of the 80s, and he showed up here in the 1990s. What was I going to teach him about people?"

For his thesis, Smith wrote about the Radical Republicans of the Reconstruction era. "He understood change," said Engel. "And change that should have come about, but didn't."

"He probably understood the difference between conservative and liberal more than contemporary students," Engel added.

While completing his Masters, Smith also donated thousands of dollars to the history department to support scholarships and lecture series.

"He's the classic sort of Renaissance man," said Engel. "He just loved being educated. There wasn't a subject he didn't want to learn more about."

Around decade later, Smith continued his studies at FIU, writing his Ph.D dissertation on John Sherman, the lesser known brother of Civil War General William Sherman.

Just because he was in his late 80s, doesn't mean Smith was cut any slack. While classes were enjoyable, writing the dissertation was a "difficult experience."

"My lead professor beat me up terribly," he said. "He was great."

"It is an extraordinary experience. It would be for anybody, but in my particular case, after going through undergraduate school, going through the war, going through work, this was a whole new life," Smith said. "It was a rebirth."

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