Gerry Devlin was just trying to impress a woman on their first date.
A decade later, at the age of 78, Devlin found himself standing with that woman (now his wife) outside the Tsongas Center at UMass Lowell, poised to receive his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from the College of Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences.
“It’s unreal,” said a beaming Devlin, decked out in his black cap and gown and surrounded by fellow graduates young enough to be his grandkids.
It was a moment that Devlin had given up on a long time ago.
Born and raised in South Boston, Devlin “hated” school. At South Boston High, he preferred attending matinees to attending class. “I was better at being a movie critic,” he quips of his truancy.
Eventually, he was “asked to leave” school – “not because I was a bad kid, but because I didn’t go,” he says.
Devlin still managed a respectable career, working as a custodian for the city of Boston for 35 years. He retired in 2001. A few years later, his first wife passed away.
“I really liked it. I learned something every class. I wouldn’t have kept going if I didn’t like it.” -Criminal Justice grad Gerry Devlin
“Two years after she died, my doctor told me that I looked depressed,” Devlin recalls. “He said, ‘I think you should start dating.’”
So on his way out of the appointment, Devlin asked the doctor’s receptionist, Pixie Monahan, out on a date.
On their first date, over coffee, Pixie asked Devlin, then 67, about his plans for the future.
“I was trying to build myself up and sound good, and a bunch of BS started coming out of my mouth,” Devlin recalls with a laugh. “One of them was that I wanted to go back to school. But I had no real intentions.”
Pixie thought it was a great idea.
“Good for you,” she told him. “If it’s something you really want to do, you should do it.”
One of Devlin’s childhood friends from South Boston, former UMass President Billy Bulger, had tried long ago to get him to go back to school. But now, he was actually going to do it. Devlin signed up for GED classes – which meant conquering some old fears.
“On the first night, as I was walking up the stairs to the building, I had a high school flashback,” he says. “I almost threw up.”
In his GED classes, it seemed to Devlin like he was the only one there to learn.
“It was like the class from ‘Welcome Back, Kotter.’ Everyone was throwing things,” Devlin says.
Upon completing his GED, Devlin was offered a free semester at Northern Essex Community College. He took a class in criminal justice, which fascinated him. And he appreciated that students wanted to be there, even if they sometimes mistook him for the teacher.
After completing his associate degree, Devlin decided to continue on for his bachelor’s degree at UML through the Division of Online and Continuing Education. Unable to use a computer because of eyesight issues, Devlin took all of his classes in person on campus, commuting from his home in Merrimac, Mass., for one or two courses each semester.
One of those courses was Introduction to Corrections, which he took last summer along with another nontraditional student who graduated this spring, Mary Humble.
“We were all enriched by having Gerry and Mary as members of the class,” says Assoc. Teaching Prof. Cathy Levey, the course instructor. “I admired their courage in taking on the challenging tasks involved with pursuing a college degree, their respect for their fellow students, their curiosity, determination, and how they set an example of the pursuit of lifelong learning at its best.”
In all, Devlin’s path from GED to bachelor’s degree took 10 years – with only one day of class missed because of a surgery.
“I would have finished five years ago if I could use a computer,” says Devlin, who relied on Pixie, his wife of seven years, to type his papers for him. “But I really liked it. I learned something every class. I wouldn’t have kept going if I didn’t like it.”
Asked to name any favorite professors, Devlin doesn’t hesitate.
“All of them – even the ones who gave me a bad grade,” he says with a smile. “I deserved it.”
Now that he’s a college graduate, what’s next for the 78-year-old Devlin?
“I tell him to go for his master’s,” Pixie says. “Why not?”
Don’t put it past him.