By The Hattiesburg American
updated 5/10/2010 1:32:46 PM ET 2010-05-10T17:32:46

When Collins resident Charles Buckley dons the same black and gold gown worn by more than 1,500 of his fellow graduates Saturday at the University of Southern Mississippi's commencement, chances are he'll stand out from the crowd.

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Attribute it to the gray hair peeking out from beneath the cap. A few more wrinkles, too, than what you might expect from your average fresh-faced college graduate.

Buckley, you see, is 74 years old. However, his advanced age bothers him not a bit.

"I had some teachers who might have thought it odd, but I didn't find it odd at all," said Buckley, who's getting his Bachelor of Science in Nursing with just one more course to complete.

Count Cindy Welch, Southern Miss's Hattiesburg campus coordinator of the RN-to-BSN program, as one of those who found Buckley's academic interests a bit off-the-beaten-path when they first met four years ago.

"I was surprised at first, but totally supportive," said Welch, who added that in her 10 years with the program Buckley is the oldest student she's seen.

For Buckley, it's all part of a seven-year journey so far to rise in the ranks of the nursing profession.

"It (the degree) has been a long time coming," said his wife Sylvia, 68, who will celebrate her 50th wedding anniversary with her husband in November. "But I'm proud of him."

In 2005, Buckley received his associate's degree after two years in Jones County Junior College's nursing program. Around the same time, he started working at his current job as a unit nurse at Boswell Rehabilitation Center in Magee for patients with physical and mental disabilities.

Buckley had worked some diverse careers before, but never nursing.

"I liked the people aspect," he said. "I really liked taking care of people."

The BSN is a more comprehensive degree than the associate's nursing degree, giving the student a much deeper knowledge of disease causation and prevention, said Welch. Buckley hopes to use it to achieve a supervisory position in his field.

His method of getting his degree cut out the people aspect in many ways, however. He's done his entire nine-course BSN degree online — fulfilling his clinical requirements at Boswell — a fact that almost ended his academic career at Southern Miss before he started.

Cue the standard "old people and computers" joke.

"When I first started taking everything online, I didn't even know how to turn a computer on. It was trouble," laughed Buckley.

"I think we spent more money on having somebody come down and help him with it, than we did on the actual computer," agreed Sylvia.

It wasn't just the Buckleys who were concerned either.

"He started from scratch. I hope it didn't show, but at orientation there were doubts in my mind about his ability to make it through the program," said Welch, adding with a laugh. "He's made it the long way around, despite his age and despite computer error."

Welch adds that online course work is pretty typical for her students. Most of the students within the BSN nursing program are nontraditional, meaning they must juggle much more than course work in their lives.

"Without online courses, it's just not possible for many of our students to enter the program without a significant loss of income," said Welch. "We have very successful students who go to us full-time and still have a family and work full-time."

The word nontraditional fits Buckley like a glove. Fifty years ago, he earned a diploma in chemistry and math from Southern Miss. That set him up for a career teaching junior high and high school math in Bassfield.

Except that Buckley has always had the itch to earn a few extra dollars trying out a new profession.

"You can't always do the same thing over and over again," he said. "You got to try something different."

At times so different, that you might say Buckley has had one of the world's most interesting careers.

He's trained salespeople to sell Rainbow canister vacuum systems — in Alaska.

Before that, he worked as an engineer for five years on a drill ship for the world's largest oil company, Aramco. That gig had him working off the coast of Saudi Arabia.

He also has a side-job, selling lumber from about 600 acres of pine trees on his Collins' property. His two biggest buyers are Georgia-Pacific and International Paper Co.

Buckley said that his current nursing career will stick, stating that he plans to work "another 20 years."

He also plans to keep close to his computer. Next up: A Masters of Science in Nursing.

"I think he's going to be a school boy the rest of his life," jokes Sylvia.

That's fine with Buckley who doesn't want to have anything to do with kicking back and retiring.

"You're not dead until you die," said Charles Buckley. "And you don't die until you quit."


Information from: The Hattiesburg American,

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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