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This student is graduating from a college in North Jersey – at the age of 95

NEWTON — Like many older students, Bernard Cutler’s journey to becoming a graduate was not a linear path.

He joined the military, went to work and started a family before returning to continue his education. But while other students might have taken a few years between their high school and college degrees, Cutler’s gap was a little longer: 79 years to be exact.

Cutler, 95, will become the oldest graduate in the history of Sussex County Community College when he walks across the stage to receive his diploma at the school’s commencement on Wednesday. The ceremony will mark the culmination of his pursuit of a university degree in engineering studies, more than a decade after taking his first courses at the university in Newton.

“Talk about a study in being tenacious and not giving up — because he could have easily done that,” said Kathi Gallichio, a former adviser at Sussex who worked closely with Cutler during his college years.

Bernard Cutler poses for a photo at Sussex County Community College on May 6, 2024 in Newton.  Cutler will graduate from college later this month.  The 95-year-old went back to school after losing his wife of 60 years.

Bernard Cutler poses for a photo at Sussex County Community College on May 6, 2024 in Newton. Cutler will graduate from college later this month. The 95-year-old went back to school after losing his wife of 60 years.

‘I want my friend Bernie back’

Cutler, known to his friends as “Bernie,” was born on July 20, 1928, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, but has lived in Wantage for 16 years. He served in World War II after graduating from high school in 1945 and later owned an electronics company before retiring nearly two decades ago at age 77.

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Cutler’s journey with SCCC began at a sad point in his life, after his wife of 60 years, Estelle, died in 2011. For the next nine months he was “in trouble,” he said, struggling to find the strength to continue. after her death.

“I had a friend of mine, God bless her, who said to me, ‘I want my friend Bernie back,’” Cutler said. He remembered telling her he wanted to grieve in his own way, to which she replied, “You don’t grieve anymore.”

“I got pretty angry and threw her out of the house with her husband,” Cutler said. “I pouted for a few days, and then I knew she was right.”

Cutler, who was then in his mid-eighties with two bad hips and hearing problems, knew he wouldn’t be able to get a regular job. He wanted to take evening classes for seniors, but couldn’t find any such programs locally.

His “last resort,” as he put it, was to call SCCC, which also had no senior-specific programs. But he was invited to watch the regular college classes to see if there was anything of interest to him.

It turned out that there were two courses that caught his attention. One featured music by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, a 16th century composer whose songs Cutler had sung in high school. The other was a lesson on playwrights with works from the Greek tragedy genre to the 19th century.

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Cutler enjoyed both classes, so he chose a few more. He eventually enrolled as a graduate student under Gallichio’s advice, and in 2017 became a member of the university’s international honor society, Phi Theta Kappa.

Response from other students

Cutler admitted that he was initially unsure how his fellow students, almost all of whom were young enough to be his grandchildren, would react to his presence in the classroom.

“That was one of my biggest problems when I came here,” he said. “I was afraid that this old man, trying to fit in with these 18-year-olds, was going to have a hard time.”

But after his first few lessons, he realized he had nothing to worry about. The others treated him like just another student, albeit with many more life experiences they wanted to hear about.

“These kids couldn’t be better for me,” Cutler said. “They respected me, and in some cases they even asked more of me than of the instructor.”

Cutler’s daughter, Janis Cutler Gear, shared his concerns about how he would do in the classroom, not only with the other students, but also physically attending his classes. But she soon noticed a change in his mood and was happy that her father was still willing to learn and “do something with himself.”

“I was so happy to see him engaged and involved,” Cutler Gear said. “He’s so funny and smart, and the kids loved him. It was a huge relief because he wasn’t suffering so much without my mom.”

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Cutler’s courses

Cutler usually took two classes per semester and was on campus two to four times a week. Gallichio was constantly present and helped determine his schedule and overcome any problems.

“I literally had a Bernie file,” she said, noting that she didn’t make much of an effort for most students at SCCC.

Cutler’s classes ranged from language courses such as French and Italian to math, science and computer classes. He completed assignments and wrote papers like any other student, but because he had trouble typing, he used speech recognition software called Dragon NaturallySpeaking to dictate his words onto the page.

He became good friends outside of class with several SCCC faculty members, including anthropology professor Anthony Balzano, with whom he took four courses during his tenure. He bonded with Gallichio over their shared love of golf, and he was always happy to talk to other students and impart wisdom or learn from them.

‘Every day is a gift’

Gallichio, who is now retired and lives in Delaware, said she had tears in her eyes when she heard Cutler was graduating this month. She attributed his achievement to his unwavering determination and a constant desire to keep learning.

“When you get to that age, every day is a gift,” Gallichio said, “and man, he doesn’t waste it.”

When asked what he will think about after graduation, Cutler replied, “I’ll cry that I can’t do it again.” But don’t expect him to go anywhere; he plans to continue taking college courses next semester as long as his thirst for knowledge remains.

“I think no matter the age,” he said, “learning is a wonderful thing to do.”

This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Sussex County Community College student, 95, graduate

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