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Late Bloomer
What do Alfred Hitchcock, Mark Twain and Colonel Sanders have in common with me?

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Every 35 or so years I earn an academic degree, so that should allow me to brag a little, right?

Here goes then. It was in 1973 that I earned by bachelor's degree at UNH. I was a history major, but knew that journalism was my future. After all, I was a student of the late Don Murray '48, who was my inspiration then and for years as I moved from state to state, newspaper to newspaper.

About a week ago, at the age of 57, I marched to "Pomp and Circumstance" and received a master's degree at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind. The students alongside me were less than half my age.

Move over, Dara Torres, who will be an Olympic swimmer again at 41.

Step aside, Rocco Mediate, who almost tamed a Tiger at 45 in the U.S. Open. And you too, 53-year-old Greg Norman.

Rodney Dangerfield, I got you beat as well. You were in your mid-to-late 40s and a washed-up aluminum siding salesman when you had your first break.

Yes, we're all late bloomers. I'm proud to say I ended a four-year journey to earn my journalism master's at Ball State while working full time as a teacher and director of its J-Ideas First Amendment institute, a national journalism/ civic education project.

It's been a challenge.

After my days at UNH, I worked for 31 years in the news business—from newspapers in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Ohio, New York, Florida and Maine. In 2004, I was ready for a change and new challenge after spending six years at the American Press Institute, where I was vice president.

While working full time in trying to infuse new interest in the First Amendment on the part of the nation's high school students, I did my master's a little bit at a time, consistent with my longtime personal compass—"Kaizen," a Japanese term for slow, steady, continuous improvement over time. It was an ideal I learned and internalized from Murray, who believed in daily, purposeful work, and from a former newspaper editor and boss, Lou Ureneck '73, as we set out to modernize the Portland (Maine) Newspapers in 1988.

In July 2008, I finished my master's thesis and knew the degree was mine. Kind of like a championship ring, right?

You know, a lot of time has passed since I donned a cap and gown in Durham. Richard Nixon was president (but not for long). My new Toyota Corolla cost $2,100. Monica Lewinsky was born. There was a gas crisis—with lines winding around the block.

I just filled my car with gas. There was no line, but I guess that the more things change the more they stay the same at the service station.

Going back to school was a central motivation for my moving to faraway Indiana. I found early on that the journalism coursework meant more. I was always a good student, but feared school—and failure. This time I embraced trudging off to Monday-night classes after a quick nap and shower, and burrowing into a study carrel at the library while falling asleep trying to figure out the mysteries of standard deviations.

Along the way, I got to better appreciate the power of mass communication and understand the journalism field that I first entered as a high school sophomore in Dover. We need good, robust journalism more than ever in the time of change in the industry—no matter the method of delivery, I realized. That kind of journalism is under assault as companies downsize and reduce dozens of newsroom jobs.

My quest for knowledge and late-life advancement puzzled my journalist friends, most of whom did not have an advanced degree and couldn't figure out why I would even try. "You're 55 years old. Are you an idiot?" they exclaimed.

No, a lifelong learner, I fired back.

They just shook their heads.

When I went to a 40th high school reunion in Portsmouth earlier this summer, my old friends talked about how much they were enjoying their retirement. I felt they came from another planet. Retire from what? Life?

Actually, I found I was not alone in blossoming late in life. University of Chicago economist and researcher David Gallenson found in 2006 that while some geniuses (like Mozart) do their best work early in life, that more and more achieve their greatest success later. Witness the great work of Alfred Hitchcock, Mark Twain and Colonel Sanders, who franchised Kentucky Fried Chicken when he was 65.

Warren Watson '73
Warren Watson '73

They just warmed up in the bullpen a little longer than most, I guess.

Well, excuse me. I have to hang up that new cap and gown so they won't get wrinkled—and get them ready for my next challenge, maybe here, maybe there, maybe back at UNH.

Anyone interested in a Ph.D.?

Warren Watson, director of J-Ideas at Ball State, worked for newspapers large and small for more than 30 years. The former vice president of the American Press Institute, he teaches writing, reporting and editing in the Journalism Department, College of Communication, Information, and Media at Ball State University. He is a native of Dover, N.H.

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