The following story first appeared in my second book, Forks in the Road. It is repeated here with an update.
For those who have not read Forks in the Road, the following are explanatory notes: DINFOS — The Defense Information School, then located at Ft. Benjamin Harrison, Indiana.
Colonel John J. Christy, DINFOS Commandant.
Right of Way to Graduation
Sometimes there are two reasons for selecting a certain fork in the road: one, because the pathway can be easily traveled; the other, because you must take the passage that is the only way to your destination. In 1969 the calendar dictated my way home.
On a Monday morning in January 1969, I donned my Air Force uniform and drove from Indianapolis to Indiana University at Bloomington, carrying transcripts, certificates, performance reports, commendations, and any other support, both academic and military, to explain why I was wearing the rank of a master sergeant. I didn’t know how many of my credits from various military and civilian schools were transferable to IU, so I drove and prayed, remembering the words of my grandmamma: “Don’t expect God to come every time you call, but He’ll come when you really need Him. It’s also a good idea to help yourself before He comes.”
The place to start at IU was the Office of Admission. My entry into the office was closely followed by another man. When I asked the receptionist to direct me to someone who could help me determine my status, the man behind me said, “That would be me. I’m Winford Wimmer.” He directed me to his office, and after a brief review of the volume of papers to be evaluated, he politely told the receptionist: “Please reschedule my appointments for this morning; Sergeant Alexander has been on a long road getting here. Those six stripes say he’s earned some of our time to let him know how much further he has to travel.”
The Air Force offered a special incentive for members to upgrade their education. Upon accumulating enough credits to complete requirements for a degree, including Ph.D., eligible members could apply for a one year education leave of absence under a program appropriately called Operation Bootstrap. During the past 13 years I had attended countless highly structured military schools for courses in medicine, management, journalism, and broadcasting. Off duty, I travelled to classes by car, train, the Tube (London’s underground), by bus and bicycle. And since most of them were evening classes, I also missed so many sunsets and chances to say good night to my children before their bedtime. They and my wife Judy supported me through every course.
After more than two hours of researching and calculating my credits, Mr. Wimmer rose and simply said, “Sergeant Alexander, go and request your leave of absence under Operation Bootstrap from May 1969 to May 1970. You will leave as a graduate of Indiana University.” I thanked him and subdued my excitement as I calmly walked to my car. And then I remembered Mama, and before starting the engine, I said a prayer of thanks and cried.
My request for the leave of absence was temporarily refused by the assignment section at the Pentagon, which stated that a one year replacement for me was impractical. But Colonel Christy, as Commandant, sent a terse response which included a reminder that DINFOS was his command, and that any void during my absence would be filled – even if he had to personally fill it. It was hard to argue with a guy who went AWOL from his hospital bed to stand with his buddies during the Battle of the Bulge in WW II.
In June 1969, at age 34, I joined thousands of students on the campus of Indiana University, Bloomington. Most of them were not yet first graders in 1951 when I promised myself to one day join such an assembly on a college campus. My next stroke of luck was an introduction to Richard “Dick” Yoakum, a legendary professor of journalism and broadcasting.
Professor Yoakum called me into his office and told me how I would spend my last year in his department: “OK Alexander, at DINFOS, you have been teaching about six of the fundamental broadcast courses that are required for graduation from IU. So, Master Sergeant, schedule yourself to take the final exams in those courses; then you’ll have time to help other students.” Yoakum then called in another student, Alan Pearce, an Englishman who held bachelors and master’s degrees from The London School of Economics and Political Science, and The University of London. Alan was completing studies for a doctorate in business and telecommunications from IU. Yoakum gave us one of his trademark grins and said,” Gentlemen, you’re both TAs (Teaching Assistants), so go organize the newsroom.” For an entire year I was free to concentrate on a broader range of disciplines. Working and studying with Dick Yoakum and Alan Pearce capped that most exhilarating academic experience.
From my home in Valdosta my mother frequently asked about my studies, and she gave me another nickname: “Professor.” And my sister Odessa, who had taught me the alphabet, also asked about my progress. Both of them deserved to share the graduation ceremony, and in June 1970, they took their first plane rides to Indiana.
FOUR DECADES LATER
Through the help of the IU Alumni Association and the Internet, I located Dr. Wimmer in retirement in Fayetteville, Georgia. One evening his assistant read Forks in the Road and learned that the master sergeant Dr. Wimmer assisted on that cold Monday morning in January 1969, graduated from IU in 1970, retired from the Air Force, and became an attorney and author. She asked Dr. Wimmer if he remembered James Edward Alexander. His affirmative answer prompted her to arrange our reunion.
As I drove four hours from my home in South Carolina on December 6, 2016, I reflected on what happened that morning, almost 47 years ago. Dr. Wimmer carefully examined the transcripts, diplomas, certificates and other proof of education from St. Mary’s University, University of Maryland, Cambridge University, Butler University, Air University School of Aviation Medicine, and more management courses than I could recite from memory. His intent was to evaluate the comparative academic value of courses from those multiple sources for possible conversion into transferable credits at IU. He showed me the thick manuals for tracking and evaluating every course I had completed. And he paused and applauded my discipline and zeal to become educated. I told him education was a gift I promised myself when I left Valdosta, Georgia, as a 17-year-old Air Force recruit.
When I entered Dr. Wimmer’s home in Fayetteville, our view of each other was momentarily obscured — tears have a way of making that happen. But with arms outstretched he greeted me and repeatedly declared, “What a nice Christmas present.”
I had come to deliver my gift. It is never too late to give a gift, especially when offering one that never loses its luster — “Thank you.”