May 21, 2018

It’s never too late

Philip Benkert, age 72, earned his Bachelor of Science Degree at UW-Superior's commencement ceremony on Saturday, May 19, at 2 p.m. at Siinto S. Wessman Arena. Chancellor Wachter met with Benkert prior to the ceremony to offer her congratulations.

Philip Benkert, age 72, earned his Bachelor of Science Degree at UW-Superior's commencement ceremony on Saturday, May 19, at 2 p.m. at Siinto S. Wessman Arena. Chancellor Wachter met with Benkert prior to the ceremony to offer her congratulations.

Philip Benkert received a Bachelor of Science Degree from UW-Superior at the age of 72 at spring commencement.

The late 1960s are considered one of the most turbulent times in U.S. history. The Vietnam War was reaching peak intensity, the military draft was in full-swing, and anti-war protests were widespread.

That was the backdrop for Philip Benkert as he entered his senior year at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, known then as Wisconsin State University-Superior. Benkert transferred to be near his girlfriend Faye, who was a student at UW-Superior, and because he wanted to major in geology.

Phil Benkert with Beth Christopherson and Lynn Karna

“I remember sitting around the lounge talking with other students about the war and what they were going to do,” Benkert recalled. “Some were going to Canada, some were hoping to finish their studies, and others were being drafted. It was a stressful time and it was hard to focus on our studies because we didn’t know what the future would hold.”

Unfortunately, Benkert’s student deferment expired and he entered the military service. After spending a year at Fort Polk, La., working as a coder, a day arrived that he said he’ll never forget.

“The same day my oldest daughter was born, I found out I was being deployed to Vietnam and was to report to Fort Lewis, Wash., just 21 days later,” Benkert said. “It was quite a shock.”

Benkert spent about ten months in Vietnam. He was stationed in an underground war room complex for Army Headquarters, where he worked with classified enemy intelligence. He returned to the U.S. safely, but as it turned out, the interruption to his college career would last 50 years.

“I had a family to support when I got back, so I had to find a job. I also found out that my ability to focus on academics wasn’t there anymore. I tried taking some classes, but just couldn’t concentrate.”

Before he knew it, he had retired from a 30-year career with the U.S. Postal Service, the final 20 years as a postmaster, and had all but given up on completing his degree … until the day he attended his nephew’s college graduation.

“They asked the youngest and oldest graduates to stand and be recognized,” he said. “The oldest was 62 years old and I thought, ‘If he can do it, why not me?’”

Armed with renewed inspiration from his nephew’s commencement, he wrote a letter to UW-Superior to find out what it would take.

Beth Christopherson, Academic Advisor, remembers receiving it. “I read it and thought, we’ve got to make this happen for Phil,” she said.

“I was very lucky that Beth was the person who received my letter,” said Benkert. “She really went above and beyond to help me. I also couldn’t have done it without the help of Lynn Karna in the Veterans and Nontraditional Student Center, who helped me navigate my veteran benefits.”

Christopherson explained that petitions needed to be submitted and approved for Benkert’s 20-year-old credits to be accepted. “I spent hours comparing requirements and getting the necessary approvals,” she said. “I was happy to do it because I was determined to help Phil fulfill his lifelong dream.”

When all was said and done, Benkert only needed one class to complete his degree – a capstone course that required a 20-plus page research paper. But, he would have to earn an ‘A’.

“It had been years since I’d written a paper, so I spent a lot of time just researching how to do it before I even started writing,” he said. “I decided my topic would be the sinkholes of central and western Florida. My wife and I spent some retirement years in Florida and became more aware of the sinkhole situations. With my interest in geology, I found this topic intriguing.”

“I’ll never forget opening that email from [Natural Sciences Department Professor] Dr. Schmude,” Benkert recalled. “He said it was an extremely well-prepared paper showing lots of effort, that it would be an excellent resource for other students to use, and it was highly deserving of an ‘A.’ I was so relieved! It felt good to do it not only for myself, but also for my parents, who have now passed. They invested so much in my education and I know they’d be proud.”

Benkert, who now lives in Fitchburg, Wis., said he can’t wait to cross the stage in his cap and gown to receive his diploma – a Bachelor of Science in Interdisciplinary Studies - Applied Science.

“I’m not done, though,” he said. “I plan to take some more classes. To acquire new knowledge and continue to learn is something that’s very important to me.”

Philip Benkert, age 72, earned his Bachelor of Science Degree at UW-Superior's commencement ceremony on Saturday, May 19, at 2 p.m. at Siinto S. Wessman Arena. Chancellor Wachter met with Benkert prior to the ceremony to offer her congratulations.

Philip Benkert, age 72, earned his Bachelor of Science Degree at UW-Superior's commencement ceremony on Saturday, May 19, at 2 p.m. at Siinto S. Wessman Arena. Chancellor Wachter met with Benkert prior to the ceremony to offer her congratulations.

Phil Benkert, age 72, credits his advisor, Beth Christopherson, and Lynn Karna, Veterans Officer, for helping him navigate the process of earning his degree after his education was interrupted by the Vietnam War more than 50 years ago.

Christopherson helped him petition to receive credit for the coursework he completed previously and Karna helped him make use of his veteran's benefits, both of which he says were keys to making it possible.

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