Class of 2014 Success Stories: Renaissance Man

Richard Larabee completes a 62-year quest.

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By Dave Kielmeyer

Richard Larabee always wanted a college degree. On May 10, he got it – marking the end to a 62-year journey.

Larabee was just like any other graduate at Bowling Green State University’s spring commencement ceremonies, celebrating his accomplishment with family and friends. But his path to that degree – a bachelor of liberal studies – took a few more twists and turns than his classmates’.

The “detours” along the way included successful careers in aerospace, human resources and as an entrepreneur, eight kids, 16 grandkids, and two marriages.

The 79-year-old Larabee, a retiree living in Waterville, Ohio, began his college journey as a 17-year-old at the University of Dayton, in the early 1950s.

“After the first semester, they asked me to not come back,” he said with a laugh. “I just wasn’t ready. I was too young.”

Larabee then entered an apprenticeship program to become a journeyman machinist at aerospace giant Thompson Ramo Woolridge, which later became TRW.

During his 19-year career at a TRW plant in Cleveland, Larabee took night classes at a variety of area colleges and universities including Fenn College (now Cleveland State), the University of Akron and John Carroll University.

“I studied psychology for a while, decided I didn’t want to do that,” he said. “I studied English. Then I got fascinated by mathematics and started taking a lot of scientific courses.”

After “the bottom fell out” of the aerospace industry, Larabee took a job as director of human relations at The Andersons in Maumee, and moved to Bowling Green.

“When we visited town, school must have just been starting,” Larabee said. “My kids were just enamored with all the activity and that’s why we came here to Bowling Green. We had a great big house on the corner of Court and North Summit.”

After a 10-year stint with The Andersons, Larabee enrolled at BGSU as a full-time student, studying computer science for two years.

“It was a blast, but I wasn’t suited for it,” he said of that experience in the ’80s.

Larabee then moved to Elkhart, Ind., where he worked for a couple of small manufacturers before starting Quality Plastics and Engineering, a plastics injection molding company, with two partners in 1986. When he retired in 2000, the company had 35-50 employees and averaged about $10 million in annual sales. It is still in business today.

Larabee decided last year that it was time to finish his degree. With the credits he had earned over the years, he learned, he could do it in just one semester.

He came back to BGSU with a definite purpose in mind – filling a hole in his education.

“My early education has all been in the sciences – math, physics, chemistry, hydraulics, strength of material – that sort of business,” he said. “I know nothing about history. I know nothing about sociology. I know nothing about law. I know nothing at all about philosophy. So, I said, ‘Why don’t you go back and fill that hole in?’”

That’s just what Larabee did, taking a full course load of five classes: a sociology course on minority groups; history courses on World War II, Ohio history, and the Holocaust and anti-Semitism; and a political science course on constitutional law.

Dr. Mike Carver, Larabee’s instructor in his history of WWII class, said his presence contributed a lot to the classroom.

“University students tend to grow accustomed to the classroom as a place dominated by members of their peer group who can keep historical events at arm's length,” Carver said. “The presence of an older participant, such as Dick, who can recall events covered in class creates a source of immediate empathy. Subjects such as wartime rationing and the production of propaganda become much more vivid when someone who experienced them firsthand can share his experiences.”  

Larabee’s lifetime of experiences contributed to other courses as well.

“In Ohio History, we’re talking about deindustrialization,” Larabee said. “Well, the kids have to go and search a website to learn about it. I lived it. I remember the horror of that time.”

As the personnel manager of that large TRW plant in Cleveland, Larabee had to lay off 5,000 of the 7,500 employees in the early ’70s.

Larabee’s family was supportive of his decision to complete his degree.

“My wife, Kathleen, tells me that the reason she was so supportive of my returning to school was because I said it was ‘good for my soul.’”

His daughter Ann Larabee, a BGSU alumna and professor of English at Michigan State University, is proud of his accomplishment. “To me, it’s just amazing that he decided to pursue that dream,” she said. “My dad is just a great model for aging in that he keeps doing so many things.”

Given the wide range of pursuits throughout his life, she also wasn’t surprised that he would want to return to college just to learn new things.

“He always had tons of hobbies. There would often be a car out in our garage that was taken apart because he wanted to know about auto mechanics,” she said. “For a while he was raising a bird called the lorikeet because he wanted to preserve the genetic strain of the bird. He decided he was going to fly fish, so he learned to tie his own flies. He is always doing something interesting.”

Larabee also inspired Carver.

“Dick radiates an inherent dignity and determination,” Carver said. “He helped remind me that the true nature of education is to become better rounded and willing to engage the world in a thoughtful way, not simply to earn a degree and move on to a career. The spirit with which Dick pursued his degree is worth emulation by students of any age.”

Larabee, who has been mistaken for a professor during this latest stint in college, admitted that his much younger classmates took a while to warm up to him.

“I don’t think it had anything to do with my age,” he said. “I think many of the students just don’t talk to one another. I learned that I needed to be the one to reach out. Once they knew me, I was just another student.”

Larabee disagrees with those who find today’s generation of students lacking.

“They say our current crop of young people throws everything together at the last minute. They don’t care about things. That school is sort of a lark. I don’t find that.”

As proof, Larabee cites his experience in his class on the Holocaust and anti-Semitism.

“We had to review a book, and I was really pleased with what I heard from those students. They weren’t in that class just to be in it. They had some important things to say,” Larabee said. “I walked away from that class really quite exalted. I thought, my goodness, we’re really not leaving this world to a bad bunch or a dumb bunch, or lazy bunch of kids. I think they’re pretty cool.”

If he had to do it over again, Larabee said he probably would have broken up his final coursework into two semesters, and he offers some advice for older students coming back to college.

“Don’t take a full load. Especially if you’ve been out of the classroom for a while like I had. You have to re-learn how to learn.”

So, what’s next for Dick Larabee? He plans to keep on learning, taking a course or two every winter.