Clayton White already has his gown for MCC commencement May 17, but he’d kind of like to wear the one his mom donned 26 years ago.
It probably wouldn’t be the right color, and maybe it wouldn’t fit. Anyway, although he did find her mortarboard, he hasn’t run across the gown.
Commencement will be a monumental achievement for him. It will be his first graduation ceremony. And walking across that stage will fulfill a promise he made his mother, Geneva White, a week before she died of colon cancer in 2006.
He had been a latchkey kid, he says, and his mom always made him lists. Her final list contained three items.
Take care of his aunt. Take care of his father. Finish his education.
“Wild horses couldn’t keep me from it,” White says of MCC’s commencement exercises.
When we talked to him the other day, he was studying for a unit test in college algebra — his last class. Then he’d have to start cramming for the final exam.
His MCC degree has been a long time coming.
White, now 48, came close to graduating from Blue Springs High School in 1987, but a 10-day, out-of-school suspension put him three-fourths of a credit short. He was, he admits now, “a young, dumb kid.” But he was smart enough to complete his GED in 1988.
His first stint at MCC was in the spring of 1990 at the Blue Springs campus. (That location, a satellite of MCC-Longview, operated from 1984 until 2007.)
White thinks his mother took classes at both Longview and Blue Springs. She graduated with an associate in science in business management degree in 1991.
She’d attended beauty school when he was a tot, worked as a beautician, bought the business she worked for and ran it until he was in his late teens, learned to sell real estate and did that for a couple of years. At that point she enrolled at MCC.
“She took a lot of these same classes,” White says. “Maybe she had some of these same professors.”
Round 2 for White was in 1996-97 “and I was serious.” He remembers getting A’s in all three classes one semester: business law, economics and computer survival.
“It was the first time I ever saw any kind of grade card with all A’s,” he says. “It was astonishing.” At the time he was working mornings at Big Boy Burgers in Lee’s Summit and evenings at an Amoco station, which offered tuition reimbursement.
His mom, by the way, was so concerned about his education that she offered to pay for it. But White decided “I’ll pay for it because if I don’t pay for it, I won’t go. I said, ‘When I’m done, you can reimburse me.’ And that was our agreement.”
In the fall of 1997 his wife, Cindy, was pregnant — their son, Michael, is now 19 — and White was offered a new job for more money. He didn’t finish that semester.
His final stretch at MCC started three years ago, in the fall of 2014. At that point he worked for Jackson County, maintaining the Fred Arbanas Golf Course across the street from MCC-Longview.
That fall “was the best semester of my life.” He was taking College 100, logic — and general biology from instructor Eugene Fenster.
“I tell you what, he changed my life, positively,” White says of Fenster. “I didn’t take biology in high school. I didn’t have to. I got in there, and this guy is hardcore. He knocks the rust off in five seconds and we’re going 100 mph.
“I managed a C, and it was work.”
He can still quote Fenster telling students to “take off your electronic leash — you’re here to learn.” (Fine with White: “I hate phones.”)
He also quit smoking — a 30-year habit — because of Fenster. He presented facts about what smoking does to the body, which was enough to convince White.
While he’s handing out kudos, White also credits “Professor Jana” Hackathorn, his best friend’s wife (and a psychology faculty member at Murray State University in Kentucky) , for motivating him to return to college three years ago. “All along the way, she was my mentor, supporter, adviser, sounding board — she has talked me off the ledge a few times when I thought it was too much.”
And now, White is sweating college algebra. “Logarithms just kicked my (butt).”
It’s been a challenging semester otherwise, too. His father, James, has had some serious medical issues.
Cleaning out his dad’s house, he discovered a file cabinet of his mom’s. He’s found her diploma, graduation pictures, leftover announcements and her light-blue cap.
“I’m gonna be about the same age she was when she graduated,” he notes.
Speaking of age, White bumped into a fellow the other day in the library computer lab who looked to be in his 70s. Made him feel better because he’s used to being one of the older students.
“I was like, that’s awesome,” White says. “Even if he’s just there taking one class. Education is forever.”
On the other end of the age spectrum is Suzanne Phillips, a fellow Longview student who’s also graduating. She’s 23. He tutored her in meteorology; she tutored him in English. He calls her “a great friend in life.”
He told her later that tutoring an honors student was such a big deal for him, it was a check mark on his bucket list.
“Clayton is the type of person who, no matter how busy he is or how much he needs to study, will always make time to help out his fellow students,” says Phillips, a peer mentor and writing tutor on campus.
“He has had a rough semester, but he held on and made it. Clayton is devoted to his family and his education.”
Both earned A’s in meteorology class.
White, who these days is doing landscaping on his own, doesn’t know if his associate in arts degree will be the end of his formal education.
“What are you going for?” people have asked him.
“A while,” he’ll respond. “A long while. Thirty years, pretty much. Because I made a promise to a woman. Because I enjoy it.”