Galesburg native George Bacon has been a millwright, a home builder and a marine in the Korean War. At age 79, he’s also hoping to become a Knox College graduate.
“I can fix anything. I can weld anything. Now it’s time to use my head,” Bacon said over an interview in the Gizmo. Clad in black motorcycle boots, denim overalls and a polka dot cap, Bacon doesn’t look like the typical Knox student. But he said most students have “taken him in” during his Knox experience. “I hope students don’t just think of me as just an old man.”
A busy life
After graduating from Carl Sandburg College with an Associate’s Degree in arts, along with the title of the college’s oldest graduate, Bacon said he wasn’t ready to stop learning. After being accepted to Monmouth and Knox, Bacon enrolled at Knox this term and said he feels like he is “holding his own” among the students who are less than half his age. He hopes to graduate with a degree in Political Science and American Studies in 2013.
“I worked in the millwright trade for 46 years and never thought in my wildest dreams when I got out of high school I’d be going here,” said Bacon.
After graduating from Galesburg High School in 1950, Bacon immediately began work at the Admiral plant, which was later bought by Maytag. A year later, Bacon enlisted in the Marine Corp and fought in the Korean War until 1953.
Bacon worked at Admiral again after the war and always intended on going to school. But he said “chasing girls and starting a family” kept him from higher education.
After 30 years of welding, repairing equipment and fabricating parts at Admiral, Bacon said he wanted to try something new, so he and his wife moved to Janesville, Wis. and later Ft. Wayne, Ind. to work at the General Motors factory. In 1996, Bacon retired from General Motors and moved back to Galesburg.
Bacon kept busy by building a house for his family in Galesburg, but began feeling bored when there was nothing left to fix. After 46 years of working fulltime, Bacon said he felt “restless.” Bacon was interested in learning about electricity, so he decided to take a few classes at Carl Sandburg in 2000.
“Once a person retires, it’s easy for them to dissipate away. Going to school was a lot better than sitting around watching TV and drinking beers,” he said.
Bacon quickly discovered a love of learning and one class in electricity turned into multiple classes in math, science, composition and history. Ten years later, he graduated with an Associate’s in arts.
“The more you learn, the more you understand there’s more out there you don’t know,” he said. It’s this philosophy, Bacon said, that impelled him to finish his degree.
The road to Knox
Bacon’s path to an Associate’s was a long one. After being out of the classroom for 50 years, Bacon had to take lower-level classes for no credit in order to work his way up to courses that counted toward his degree. Bacon attributed his success at Carl Sandburg to the “nurturing” professors and tutors.
“Students and faculty embraced me there,” he said. Bacon said it is too early to tell if he has found the same climate at Knox.
He compares his transition to Knox in terms of “going from the minor to the major leagues.” Bacon is taking Native America: Identity and Adaptation and Race and Ethnic Relations this term and said the “astronomical” reading load is his biggest challenge so far.
“It takes longer for things to soak into this old thing,” he said, motioning toward his head. “Young people absorb it like a sponge, but it bounces off me.”
Bacon is also concerned about Knox’s foreign language requirement.
“That’s got me in a dither,” he said, shaking his head. Bacon took two semesters of Spanish at Carl Sandburg last year, but had difficulty picking up the sounds.
It is mot just the reading and language requirement that are giving Bacon a hard time. “My biggest complaint is that it’s cutting into my beer drinking time. I tell people I’m going to school to stay out of the tavern,” Bacon said, laughing.
Despite his heavy course load, Bacon said he enjoys school and thinks learning is worth the time he could spend being an average retiree.
“I come to school because I like it and it keeps my mind working. I’m not worried about writing a resume; I’m here for personal gain.”
Bacon does not think he is the only one who can gain something from his Knox experience. “To be much older, you’re different.” He thinks his unique perspective adds diversity to class discussions.
Bacon has lived through things that Knox students have only read about in their history textbooks.
“I remember when Roosevelt got on the radio after Pearl Harbor and said, ‘This is a day that will live in infamy.’ That’s insight I can bring to class.”
Aside from going to class, Bacon works as a general repairman at Sears two days per week. And when he is not studying in the Gizmo or fixing things around the house, Bacon enjoys repairing old American-made Schwinn bicycles and riding his Honda motorcycle with his wife Sheryl. She rides in the side car.
Bacon said he receives a lot of encouragement from his wife and four children. His friends are also impressed with his decision to go back to school. “They said they would like to do what I do, but don’t have the gumption.”
Bacon agrees. “I’m proud of what I did. I don’t know too many 80-year-olds who would do it.”