79-Year-Old Student Graduating in May, Headed to Texas A&M University in College Station for Graduate Degree

Karen Clos
April 16, 2024

Charles “Chuck” Simmons, 79, has always wanted to finish the undergraduate degree he began more than 50 years ago, but, he says, his life got in the way.

It was the 1970s, he recalls, and he and a couple of colleagues also working on their degree at Sam Houston State University would make the three-hour drive from Houston to Hunstville and back – and not just once, he said – they did that three times a week – and it was every bit the inconvenient haul that it sounds like.

In his mid-twenties then, he was a Houston police officer, a husband, and the father of three, and it all became too much. And back then, he says, there were no better options, no such thing as online degree programs, and no easily accessible or more affordable options. So, he just gave up on it.

And, in all fairness, Simmons was an unusually busy guy. He had gone straight from high school graduation to an indistinctive messenger job at a local bank where he called himself “the 143rd vice president” – until the day his boss asked him to take an aptitude test for a job no one even knew how to do yet.

A&M-Central Texas graduating student Chuck Simmons, 79, with his grandchildren.

“Yea, the other guys I worked with thought that was really funny,” Simmons admitted. “And they weren’t the least bit shy about laughing at me when I told them I was going to try it. The bank wanted to computerize things like payroll, and management was willing to train people who they thought might have a knack for it.”

As it turns out, Simmons might just have had the last laugh when the test results came in. In no time, he was going to IBM for training and picking up programming without a hitch. And even though he was intrigued with technology and doing well at it, he was about to answer an entirely different calling – one where he would spend the next 25 years of his life.

“I heard that the Houston Police Department was hiring, and I applied for the training academy, and was accepted,” he explained, adding that if he sounds confident, that was definitely not the way he remembers it.

“I was a 6’2 inch, skinny 20-year-old kid who had to force down multiple milkshakes just to make the minimum weight requirement,” he laughed, his earnest James Stewart countenance reflecting the once-unsure young man who was, back then, not the least bit sure he would be accepted into the academy. But, as fate sometimes has it, he was accepted. And now, it was just a matter of making it through the rigors of training.

“That was 16 weeks I will never forget,” he laughed. “I wasn’t at the top my class, but I wasn’t at the bottom either. I was just busy taking in everything they were throwing at us from the law to the use of physical force to tactics and strategy. It was a lot to absorb, but all of it was necessary, and I wanted to be a good cop. So I showed up every day, did everything they told me to do exactly how they told me to do it, and counted the weeks until it was over.”

There were other guys who were bigger, and still others who were tougher, even. And a few who were both, he laughed. But he knew himself, he said. Knew he had the ability to be disciplined and steady. That was the kind of cop he wanted to be. Not the biggest, not the baddest, but the steadiest. The kind who did the right thing the right way.

He realized he might just be that kind of guy when, one day in training, the class of soon-to-be rookies was asked to report to the morgue to observe as the medical examiner conducted an autopsy.

Some of those ‘tough guys’ were keeling over at the sight of a body, but Simmons managed to stay on his feet. By the time their class graduated, he says, he had ‘somehow tied with a fellow cadet for 10th place.

His formal education may have been interrupted, he said in retrospect, but the truth is, he really doesn’t regret it. He never stopped wanting it, he said, even as his life rolled out before him over the years. He just never figured out how to finish it.

Before he knew it, he said, he had completed a 25-year career as a Houston Police Officer. He retired, but that was a career retiring, not the man. As experienced as he had become, there were new jobs just waiting for him. He went to work as the director of security at the Greenway Plaza and The Summit, became a Harris County reserve deputy, and, for good measure, did two years with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

The best part, though, the part that he shares without an ounce of self-importance or reservation are, to him, like tokens, or maybe more like nostalgic charms punctuating a life of service. And like every good Texan, he tells a story like nobody’s business: part stoic, as if to suggest the extraordinary events brought to him by virtue of his job were little more than “Aw shucks, ma’am” moments.

“My partner and I were working security at The Summit, and we were on the floor to the right of the stage,” he said, his crystal blue eyes sparkling with mischievous abandon as he methodically described what it was like to watch Elvis Presley perform from such a short distance – so close that he could have touched him if he had wanted to.

“When he said goodnight to the audience,” he continued. “Elvis turned to the right to find the stairs and started walking toward us,” he said, slyly and ever so patiently holding back before continuing.

“The stage he performed on was six feet high, and when he finished the show and walked to what he thought were the stairs, it was just dark enough not to see that it wasn’t stairs – it was the tops of our heads. He didn’t know that though, and he fell right onto us both,” he said.

“We made sure he was okay, and we brushed ourselves off,” he laughed. “And the best part was how he acted like it was no big deal. The King of Rock and Roll had just fallen on us, and he just gave us his trademark line that everyone got at the end of the show. ‘Thank you. Thank you very much.’”

This May, Simmons will have another tall tale to tell. And this one will be as memorable as meeting The Beatles – which he did – or getting a walk-on part in a movie with Burt Reynolds, Jacqueline Bissett, or Ryan O’Neal – which he also did.

It won’t be as glamorous as being the personal security guard for the sister of the King of Saudi Arabia or traveling with them throughout Europe as their personal security detail. But it will be a big deal.

“I have gotten so much help from everyone there,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve ever met more nice people in one place. The Writing Center, the library, the advisors, the graduation office – they are all spectacular.”

This time, he said, it will be all about him and a couple hundred other people he has something in common with. He will walk the stage at The Cadence Bank Center at the A&M-Central Texas Spring 2024 May Commencement and – finally – these 50 jampacked years later – receive his undergraduate degree in criminal justice.

He will then be the University’s oldest graduate, just four years older than the previous oldest graduate, Ethel “PJ” Johnson, who was 75 when she graduated.

He was inspired to complete the degree, he explained, during the pandemic. He would sit on his porch, he said, reading novels. It occurred to him one day that he could finish what he began all those years ago. His granddaughter, Katie, had attended A&M-Central Texas twice – graduating with a master’s degree in accounting.

He went to an open house on campus, met with advisors, enrolled in some prerequisite courses at Blinn College and even got to convert his hours of police training into course credits toward his undergraduate degree.

“I have gotten so much help from everyone there,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve ever met more nice people in one place. The Writing Center, the library, the advisors, the graduation office – they are all spectacular.”

“They have taken me from a place where I didn’t feel 100% confident to where I am now, and where I am headed. It has been an incredible journey.”

But he is far from finished with education. He mastered online classes, he said, and loves the intellectual challenge of the rigor of his program, the closeness and mentorship of the faculty who encouraged him, and the staff members and advisors who, he says, were always there for him.

He reported having applied to the Homeland Security graduate program at Texas A&M University in College Station and was recently and officially informed that he has been accepted.

“If anyone would have told me when I was driving back and forth 50 years ago that it would be 2024 by the time I got my undergraduate degree, I would have thought they were crazy,” he laughed. “And I would have thought they were crazier if they’d told me I’d do all that and keep going for a graduate degree.”

“But I have more left in me – and I thank A&M-Central Texas for waking that up in me and showing me that even if something is interrupted by the life we are living, it is still obtainable – and more. And it is better than we could have ever imagined. At any age.”

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