ROME, Ga. (BP) — As Shorter University's class of 2017 walked across the stage to receive their diplomas, one graduate received a standing ovation for his long journey.
Horace Sheffield, now 88, first enrolled at Shorter in 1961 and left with 115 credit hours because his own daughters were soon to enter college.
"I didn't care about having a diploma back then, but I'm getting my degree this time," the retired pastor said.
Earlier this month, Sheffield received his bachelor of science degree in Christian studies as the first graduate of Shorter's online degree program in Christian studies.
He was inspired to complete his degree after 50-plus years, when he read a magazine article about how senior citizens can attend certain colleges and universities without paying tuition, so he came back determined to graduate. He said the Christian studies faculty helped him achieve his goal.
Also helping was his neighbor Amanda Brannock who helped him type his papers and enter online assignments after he wrote them by hand.
"I saw him write until his hands couldn't write anymore," Brannock said, "and I've seen him focus so hard to the point where his vision wasn't normal."
An early literacy teacher at a primary school, Brannock moved to Georgia five years ago "and Horace was one of the first people I met here. He came to my home to talk to my family about accepting the Lord and becoming members of the church. It's because of Horace I was able to see my husband and my son baptized."
Crediting Sheffield with a great work ethic, she said he has been an inspiration to her as he has worked to achieve his goal at Shorter, located in Rome, Ga.
"When he approached me about going back to college, he said it was the only thing in life he had never finished, and he did not want to meet the Lord without that degree. He said he knew nothing about computers let alone own one.
"So I said, 'Pop [as he's known by friends], I've got a computer and a printer, and I'll get you internet.' He gave me the gift of God in my husband and son; I could do no less than help him get an education. We are so proud of him."
At Shorter's commencement, Brannock walked across the stage with Sheffield, noting, "We went in as a team, and we wanted to come out as a team!"
The majority of the Sheffield family gathered to celebrate his graduation, including his two children, five grandchildren and 14 of his 15 great-grandchildren.
A Facebook photo gallery of him wearing his cap and gown has gained hundreds of likes. In one photo, he is holding a sign that reads, "With God all things are possible – Matthew 19:26."
Sheffield's granddaughter Jill Brazier said he has remained active in ministry, recounting, "Up until about two months ago he was preaching at a truck stop.... He'd been doing that for the last three years."
After dropping out of Shorter, Sheffield served as pastor of Hill Crest Baptist Church in Rome until 1976 when he accepted the pastorate of Calvary Baptist Church in Barnesville, Ga., serving there until 1989. He then served as director of missions for the Tugalo Baptist Association in Taccoa, Ga., before moving back to be near family in Barnesville.
At Calvary Baptist, Sheffield is a Sunday School teacher, and he participates in Tuesday night visitation with pastor Allen Newman.
Sheffield said he hopes to motivate people of all ages to get as much education as they can as soon as they can to raise themselves to a higher level.
"I am living proof that you have no excuses," he said.