Steven Potter’s eight-year-old granddaughter recently asked him: “Grandpa, why are you graduating after Mommy and Daddy?”
Potter’s tongue-in-cheek reply: “Because I’m older and slower.”
More than a half-century after he started his BA studies on campus, the 72-year-old will cross the University of Guelph convocation stage this week. The former high school dropout says he can’t wait to collect his long-delayed undergrad degree.
“I’m excited because it’s been a long time coming,” said Potter, who completed his final course – introductory Italian – in winter 2023 to round out his general studies degree that started in 1971.
He will graduate among about 150 students – most born well after the birth of Potter’s two children – during the College of Arts convocation ceremony on June 15.
‘Laid-back’ beginnings on U of G campus
When Potter joined U of G, he expected to complete a four-year degree in the normal fashion – although he’d already arrived via a roundabout route.
Having dropped out of his Toronto high school to work with the Ontario Provincial Police, he had decided to return to his secondary studies and ultimately apply for university. Scanning U of G’s undergrad calendar for Grade 13 requisites, he learned that mature students needed to have some secondary schooling and two years of work experience and be over 21.
“That fit me,” said Potter, who was admitted in fall 1971 without ever completing Grade 13.
With money tight, he had to alternate school semesters with work; he completed courses in summer 1972 and winter 1973.
“I had a lot of arts classes, it was very laid-back,” said Potter, who remembers walking barefoot to morning classes from South Residences. “Everything was ‘far out’ then.”
He and classmates hung out in a former coffee shop in the basement of Massey Hall and in the Bullring, a former livestock show ring that became a campus pub in the early 1970s. Laughing, he said, “I remember when the Bullring changed to a pub, the headline in the newspaper said: ‘Bullring stays the same, but the animals have changed.’”
Back to school decades after beginning classes
In 1973, Potter was offered full-time work in human resources with the Ontario government. He’d collected only 13 credits by then. But “the grass was always greener,” he said, “and you didn’t need a degree for human resources at the time.”
For nearly two decades, he worked in various provincial ministries in Toronto. In 1991, he set up an HR consulting business; today Potter is still sole proprietor of the eponymous firm based at his home in Lanark, near Ottawa. All the time he was working and raising two children, he figured he’d resume his studies someday.
“Someday” came in 2006 when he reapplied to U of G. Since then, Potter has juggled full-time work with distance studies, mostly taking one course per semester.
He had several favourite courses during his mixed arts program, beginning in 1971 with introductory history taught by Dr. Terry Crowley, now University professor emeritus.
More recent favourites include a music course in 2007 with Dr. Mary Cyr, now University professor emerita in the School of Fine Art and Music. Later that year, Potter spent several weeks with his daughter in Europe, including attending a performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni in Prague.
“I had studied that work in the winter.” Referring to the inspiration and appreciation he gained from his studies, Potter added, “That to me is what a liberal arts education is all about.”
In 2017, he took a political ethics course taught by Geoffrey Stevens, formerly managing editor of The Globe and Mail. Potter still treasures a perfect mark he received on one assignment.
“Getting that seal of approval from Geoffrey Stevens was like I had graduated from university,” said Potter, a longtime political volunteer.
Potter to granddaughter: ‘Finish school a little earlier’
For more recent classes, including several in HR, leadership and management, he benefited from his decades-long career in the field. He even pointed out a couple of errors in the questions for one multiple-choice exam that were quickly corrected by the course instructor.
At the same time, Potter made a point of not overplaying his expertise with other students during group work conducted by distance. He recalls meeting a project partner during one rare visit to campus and laughing at her startled reaction to his age.
“I had accomplished my goal of not sounding too young and not too old,” he said.
What does he plan to do with his new degree?
“It actually comes at a good time as I’m switching my focus from HR consulting to mediation services,” said Potter, who recently completed certificate programs in leadership and mediation and who is already an accomplished mediator.
“Getting a degree is a good thing to have. You should have a degree if you’re going to be a mediator these days. It will be like starting a new chapter in my life, that’s how it feels.”
He has no plans to retire soon, quipping, “I’m 72 now. I’m on the ‘freedom 95’ plan. I would rather play golf part-time than full-time.”
His advice for that inquisitive granddaughter? “I suggested that she finish school a little earlier.”
About 3,200 U of G students will graduate during convocation ceremonies June 13-16 in the Guelph Gryphons Athletic Centre.