Finishing what he started
More than 40 years after leaving college to support his family, Jay Woolf finally earned his Loyola degree
By Deborah Ziff
Jay Woolf (BA ’16) was one course shy of graduating from Loyola when he stepped away to spend more time with his wife and soon-to-be-born son. That was in 1970.
As the years passed, Woolf built a successful career. Yet the fact that he didn’t have a diploma continued to nag at him. “I looked at it as something in my life that I had started and not finished,” he says. “I don’t like leaving things unfinished.”
So after a nearly 45-year break from school, he returned to Loyola, determined to get the one thing that had eluded him the first go around: his degree.
That was then
In 1965, Lyndon B. Johnson was president, U.S. troops were on the ground in Vietnam, and Woolf was a sophomore at Loyola. He had just transferred from Washington University, which had turned out to be a poor fit. A physics-turned-political science major, Woolf was commuting from his home in Skokie, taking the ‘L’ to a bus to the Lake Shore Campus to take classes. At the time, Woolf recalls, there were four buildings besides the chapel: two brick classroom buildings and two Quonset huts, one used as a student union.
In the spring of 1966, Woolf got a part-time job at a brokerage firm, which eventually turned into a full-time job trading over-the-counter stocks. For two years, he continued to take night classes part-time at Lewis Towers on the Water Tower Campus. Between work and classes, he wasn’t getting home until 10 p.m.
At the time his wife, Helyn, was pregnant with their older son. “I wanted to be able to see my child, and I thought that a degree was not going to matter for my future,” he says. So Woolf made the decision to leave school to concentrate on family and work.
Woolf and his wife had another son and he bought a seat on the Chicago Board Options Exchange. In 1985, he moved to Manitowish Waters, Wisconsin, where he eventually bought a lumberyard and hardware store. After a successful run, he sold the lumberyard in 2007 and the hardware store to one of his sons.
Woolf has also lived with Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia for about 30 years—he even wrote a book about using humor to deal with death, called It IS a Laughing Matter: Coping with Life through Laughing at Death—but says cancer is not the reason he wanted to finally complete his degree.
“When I went back, it was because I wanted to,” he says. “Possibly to finish something I started; possibly just to prove to myself I could; possibly to fill a hole; possibly because I saw not earning my degree earlier as a failure I couldn’t accept.”
A different student experience
From his home in northern Wisconsin, returning to Loyola as a student would have at one time been a near impossibility. But after Woolf retired and began exploring options for finishing his degree, he discovered that it was within his grasp after all.
This time, instead of taking a train to a bus to take classes in brick-and-mortar buildings, he became an online student: logging in from his computer at home, submitting homework via e-mail, and taking part in classroom discussions through “synchronous” online sessions. It was a steep learning curve for Woolf, who admits he’s not a computer savvy person. In the mid-60s, he and his fellow Loyola students used slide rules, notebooks, and typewriters. They physically went to the library to do their research. Doing all of his coursework online was a major adjustment.
“I was very apprehensive, especially the first time, but it didn’t stop at the first time,” he says. “Every time we were going online as a class, I would worry that I wasn’t doing something right.”
Although he had left Loyola with just one course to go, when he returned in 2014 he needed 33 credit hours, or about 11 classes, to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in Applied Studies, a field of study geared toward adult students in the School of Continuing and Professional Studies. Other things were different, too. He found he was not only older than other students, but also his professors. And instead of taking classes with the idea that he would one day apply it to a career, Woolf’s career is now behind him.
After three years as a online student, Woolf completed his degree requirements in December 2016. The following May he returned to Loyola’s Lake Shore Campus—for the first time since 1968—to take part in the School of Continuing and Professional Studies commencement.
Charlie Schutt, who taught a marketing course taken by Woolf during his final semester, is used to teaching adult learners. Most of his students range from those in their mid-20s to students like Woolf, who are returning to their studies much later in life.
Schutt says it’s not uncommon for an adult student to return to school, but it is unusual for someone’s academic journey to take the arc that Woolf’s has. “I think it’s a unique thing to see someone, after 50 years, complete his degree online in a totally different venue and a totally different way than when he started,” Schutt says.