By Kelsey Durham
It took him nearly 50 years, but former Queensborough Community College student Alexander Phillips has finally received his college degree.
The 90-year-old Manhattan native, who now lives in Georgia, was given the surprise of a lifetime last month when his family arranged a party for him to celebrate getting the degree he had given up hope of one day having.
And it all started with a simple conversation he had with his daughter-in-law.
Phillips was in his 40s and living in Flushing when he enrolled at the Bayside school nearly half a century ago, hoping to earn his associate degree in applied sciences.
But before he was able to finish school, Phillips was forced to leave QCC for medical reasons and entered the workforce without becoming a college graduate.
He led a successful career with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, starting out as a bus driver in Queens before working his way up to chief, where he managed about 500 employees at bus depots across the city. Several years and three more promotions later, Phillips retired from the MTA in 1987, but he said he often thought about the degree he never got the chance to complete.
Earlier this summer, Phillips was talking with his son Anthony’s wife, Marsha, when he mentioned he felt disappointment and regret over never finishing college. His daughter-in-law began to look into what she could do to help and contacted QCC on his behalf, and what the Phillips family heard back was something they never expected.
“Dr. Call spoke with the board at the school and they all agreed to give me a full-fledged certificate to be a member of the graduating class of 2014,” Phillips said. “It was a real surprise. My daughter-in-law is a real sweetheart and she and Dr. Call put in a lot of work to do this for me.”
Soon after, Phillips’ degree came in the mail along with a cap and gown traditionally worn at QCC’s graduation ceremonies, but he was not made aware of the surprise until his family arranged to throw a party in his honor. His children donned their own collegiate caps and gowns along with their father to celebrate his newest accomplishment.
“It’s really quite an achievement,” Phillips said. “I think I got about 20 years younger. It’s really taken some years off my life.”
Phillips said education and hard work have always been values he instilled in his children from a young age. His four daughters all have college degrees and his son Anthony, who now cares for Phillips at his home in Douglasville, Ga., runs his own thriving antique business.
Phillips said the experience that QCC gave him, even though he left the school without completing his degree, has stuck with him throughout his lifetime and encouraged him to always try his hardest to succeed. He recalled a life-changing lesson his former math teacher at QCC gave him that led to the successful career he had and the hardworking children he raised.
“I saw him in the hallway one day and I told him I wanted to know math well enough to be able to discuss it with people,” Phillips said. “All he said to me was one word: persevere.”
Reach reporter Kelsey Durham at 718-260-4573 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.