At ages 74 and 80, Willie Barron and wife Algreda embody Governors State University’s (GSU) commitment to lifelong learning.
The couple graduated with bachelor degrees from GSU in May and doubled right back for their Master of Health Sciences in Addiction Studies. Algreda, mother to eight children, 36 grandchildren, and 44 great grandchildren, says slowing down is not part of their reality.
“We’re just always busy. It just never stops,’’ said Algreda, who joined her husband in the GSU Interdisciplinary Studies program in 2015.
Willie was the first to enroll and now admits, he was apprehensive. But the feeling didn’t last long. “I thought it would be a challenge keeping up with young people, but it turned out to be the other way around,” he said with a laugh.
At GSU’s 2018 Commencement ceremony, they walked across the stage together, each graduating magna cum laude. Both are already working on their master’s degrees, as well as certifications that will help them do an even better job of what they have done for years—help others.
The Country Club Hills couple, married 50-plus years, raised children and worked in the corporate world. Algreda worked for the IBM subsidiary, Science Research Associates. Willie’s career took him from the National Safety Council to a private school, where he was an administrator, to JP Morgan. A gifted musician, Willie also served as a full-time music director at area churches, making time to teach music as well.
But they always made time for their church and helped out wherever there was a need, from hosting Bible study sessions to sharing the burdens of those struggling with life’s challenges and offering words of encouragement and advice. “That’s where the Bible says to go,” Algreda said. Often, people asked for help with drug addiction, either with their own or on behalf of a loved one. “Everyone knows someone who is dealing with it, if not in their own family, then in their extended family,” Willie said.
The Barrons did their best to help—Algreda at her son-in-law’s church, Lights of Zion Ministries in Chicago’s Roseland neighborhood, and Willie at Victory Christian International Ministries in Markham. When an acquaintance offered Willie a job as an addictions counselor, the idea appealed to him. But he learned he would need a special certification for the post. That’s when he turned to GSU.
“It turned out I needed a bachelor’s degree and also a master’s degree before I could get certified,” he said. Despite his age, he enrolled. He had not been in a classroom since his sophomore year of college at Indiana University. “I dropped out to join the Army during Vietnam, but I didn’t get the chance to go back,” he said.
From the start, Willie enjoyed being back in college. He ran into one technological glitch at the beginning. “I missed the first assignment because I thought the professor was going to write it on the blackboard, but it turned out it was online,” he laughed, referring to the online platform called Blackboard. “I was OK after that.”
One semester later, Algreda joined him. She had earned her associates degree from South Suburban College in 1998 and was eager to head back to the classroom. “I’d always mingled with young people,” she said of her time counseling others at church.
Youngest daughter Marnie Robinson—a 2006 GSU alum—said her parents have always celebrated education. “It has always been their dream to get their degrees. All of my life, I’ve watched them cheer others on as they achieved success, and I know in my heart that they only wished they could do the same. Finally, they did it! To see them accomplish this goal together—and at their age—was just so incredible and encouraging to others who saw it.’’
At GSU, students and faculty were friendly and often intrigued by the viewpoint of someone several decades their senior. “In some discussions, there was a real curiosity about what life had been like years ago,” Willie said.
And as Algreda pointed out, “A lot of students at GSU are adults who are coming back to get a degree, so our age didn’t make any difference to them.”
Each of the Barrons took six credit hours, or two courses, at a time, and they’ve enjoyed every moment. “I like the environment at GSU,” Algreda said. “It’s kind and warm. And people are just themselves. They’re very friendly.”
For anyone thinking of following their example, the Barrons offer words of encouragement. “You’re never too old to learn. It’s your mindset and what you really want to do with your life,” Algreda said. “Age is nothing but a number.”