The College Sheepskin That Time Nearly Forgot

James R. Galbraith is senior vice president of corporate affairs at Hilton Hotels in Beverly Hills

For 27 years, I lived a lie. Over that period I claimed to be a college dropout. That is not true and it never has been--and I now have the diploma to prove it.

My moment of truth came Saturday in full public view of 15,000 spectators who packed the athletic field grandstands of Cal State L.A. There, along with 3,900 others, I marched in cap and gown, listened to the thoughtful words of commencement speaker Norman Cousins and accepted President James Rosser's conferral of a Bachelor of Arts degree.

The excitement of the moment was shared by my chance seatmate, a young woman who summarized the joy and relief of many graduates by exclaiming, "My parents can't believe it."

"Neither can my three kids!" I replied, sparking youthful laughter around us. At 51, my age clearly set me apart.

Don't think this is the familiar tale--you know, the one about the graybeard who returns to the classroom to earn his degree after decades of battling the elements in the stormy "real world." In my case, I never returned to the classroom.

So how did I wind up beneath a mortarboard? It involved a college career that stretched over seven years, beginning in 1953. As a full-time newspaperman and a part-time student, I inched ever closer to a degree. In 1960, a job on Capitol Hill lured me to Washington and I reluctantly left Cal State L.A., presumably just a few credits shy of a diploma.

The near-miss gnawed at me over the years. Finally, now that I again live in Los Angeles, I decided to take the two or three classes necessary to earn the long-sought degree.

Several months ago the dust was blown off my academic records and, much to everyone's surprise, Cal State L.A. discovered I had sufficient credit for a degree! Not only was I qualified but President Rosser insisted the diploma carry a 1960 date, when it was earned.

But you can be sure I was not going to accept the diploma in the mailbox or the dark of night. No way. The passing years had not dismissed the pride of accomplishment. Besides, what would Mike Antonovich, Sherman Block, Billie Jean King and other Cal State L.A. alumni think of me if I didn't graduate with the appropriate pomp and circumstance?

All of this is what delivered me Saturday to the campus bookstore to pick up a cap and gown for the commencement ceremony I had missed 27 years before.

"Master's?" said the obliging salesman, eyeballing me for size.

"No. Bachelor of Arts, believe it or not," I answered, realizing my sunglasses had not hidden the telltale wrinkles of, uh, maturity. Once outfitted, I joined the procession of fellow graduates and we marched to our sweet academic reward.

The following day, my wife, Mary, threw a nostalgia-laced party, beckoning mentors and colleagues of the past to join in toasting a fellow whom the invitation described as Cal State's "oldest living graduate." A roast was master-planned by real estate whiz Mason Dinehart, a Cal State classmate who used his off-campus hours playing Bat Masterson to Hugh O'Brian's Wyatt Earp in the hit 1950s TV series. Speakers pondered whether the honoree was a "slacker" or a "finisher," but modesty prevents an account of the roasters' conclusion.

John FitzRandolph, another classmate who is dean of the Whittier School of Law, drew a painful laugh from the assembled guests when he called them "basketball haters" (The party innocently conflicted with the deciding game of the Lakers-Celtics championship series.)

The coup de grace came from Dr. Robert Kully, my debate coach at Cal State who is a member of the California State University Board of Trustees. My fellow graduates will have to wait for their diplomas to arrive by mail in a few weeks. I hope they will forgive me in learning that Kully presented mine at the party. There, "with all the rights and privileges pertaining thereto," was a diploma dated Jan. 29, 1960.

College dropout, baloney. My 84-year-old mother gave me a graduation card with the written inscription, "I knew you could do it!"

She was right, at long last, I did.

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