He carries a black briefcase and eats lunch alone in the Saybrook dining hall. A tall, gray-haired man with a booming voice, he could be mistaken for a professor. His name is Stewart Palmer ’14, and, at the age of 67, he returned to campus last summer to complete the final two years of the degree he began in the 1960s.
For most of us Yalies, even our brightest college years can be dimmed with anxiety over GPAs, internships, résumés and grad school applications. The idea of spending this time studying simply for pleasure seems an unimaginable luxury, but for Palmer, that luxury is a reality. Palmer doesn’t have to worry about his postgrad future — launching a career, starting a family — because that future is already securely behind him.
Palmer matriculated straight out of high school in the class of 1968. This was during the golden Yale of yore, when students wore a jacket and tie to dinner, homework on a weekend was “laughable,” and the women were at Vassar. During a medical leave in the middle of his freshman year, Palmer completed an IBM training session and was introduced to the up-and-coming field of computers. He was hooked. But in the mid-1960s, Yale didn’t offer the computer science major. By sophomore year, Palmer had completed the requirements of the French major and was told he’d have to complete a second major. He considered taking history, but he knew his real passion was computers. Unsure of which path to pursue and needing time off, Palmer left school in 1967 — at the height of the Vietnam War.
“When I was first at Yale, I didn’t even know why I was here,” Palmer said. “I had the vague sense that I was going to Yale because my parents wanted me to go to Yale and that I was going to college because all of my peers went to college.”
A month after leaving Yale, Palmer enlisted in the Navy for four years. After the war, he returned to New York to work at IBM. Swept up in the corporate world of computers and gradually losing touch with his classmates, Palmer thought his Yale days were over. He had found what many of us aspire to: a great career in a field he loved. But something nagged at him, “this deep sense that I should have finished Yale,” Palmer said. “I had always said, ‘It’s a choice I made, it’s something I’m going to have to live with.’”
But a few years ago, Palmer was visiting then-girlfriend, now-wife Priscilla Coker Palmer when he noticed her diploma on the wall. At the age of 52, she’d completed her unfinished bachelor’s degree in computer science through the Open University in London.
“If she can do this, so can I,” Palmer thought. Completing a degree at a university in New York would’ve been the easiest route, but his biggest regret was not finishing Yale. He wrote to the Dean’s Office to inquire about readmission. He thought he’d complete his degree in computer science, so he contacted the director of undergraduate studies in computer science, Stanley Eisenstat. But according to Palmer, the DUS advised him to choose a different major, a course of study purely for fun. “Eisenstat said to me, ‘You’re not doing this to get a better job,’” Palmer said. He began to flip through the Blue Book, and, by the time he finished the history section, he was “practically salivating.” He had made his choice. He even had one credit to count towards the new major: HIST 21b, taken in 1967.
“All of a sudden, it became more than unfinished business. I realized I wanted to be stretched intellectually, and this could be an intellectual adventure.”
Before Palmer could be readmitted, he had to complete two other university courses, so Palmer enrolled at Columbia last spring after he retired. This was to show Yale that, after 90 semesters out of school, he could still do academic work. “My first midterm at Columbia can only be described as an out-of-body experience,” Palmer said. “I had something like a 99 average on all the problem sets, and on the midterm I got a 53. I said, ‘Whoa, I need to learn how to take tests again.’ It took a while. But I got the hang of it at Columbia, so when I got here, it was, ‘OK, I’ve done this before.’”
Thomas Olsen ’82, who taught a summer session class called “From Gutenberg to Google Books,” said Palmer’s greatest challenge was learning more “developed and layered” academic writing after years of writing “boiled down” reports and memos for his job at IBM.
Olsen was also concerned that Palmer would have difficulty transitioning to the unique give-and-take environment of a small college seminar. “After all, he had had a career at IBM of making important decisions with real consequences.” Olsen quickly saw from class that he had no cause to worry — Palmer didn’t dominate the discussion or intimidate his classmates the way Olsen anticipated. Rather, the professional background seemed only to be an advantage. Palmer, Olsen recalls, “was able to focus his energies in a remarkable way, perhaps as only a trained professional with years of experience with pressures and deadlines and a totally adult sense of responsibility can.”
Palmer’s writing partner for a fall history seminar, Joshua Penny ’13, noticed that he was more diligent and timely than fellow students, but, unlike many other Yalies, he never flaunted how swamped in work he was. In a music seminar, Palmer was open about how difficult he found the material, far more honest than most students would dare to be, according to professor Richard Lalli MUS ’86. “It’s rare for a student to say that, and if they do, it sounds like a complaint, as if it were an unfair assignment. I think that comes with experience. I hope that the others learn you can be that honest and humble.”
Palmer was surprised that an engineering major in his music seminar was taking the class Credit/D/Fail so she wouldn’t have to worry about her GPA. He was also shocked to find that students could drop a class after the midterm if they don’t receive a good grade. Compared to the 1960s, Palmer says, today’s Yale is no more stressful, but it is more intense. He remembers his classmates were less preoccupied with attaining a near-perfect GPA and spent less time on homework.
But near the beginning of his return to Yale, Stewart also felt the pressure to obtain a good GPA: any readmitted student is permanently expelled if he fails a course in the first two semesters. Worried, Stewart spent his fall semester only studying and attending class.
“It wasn’t until the semester was over that I realized it really would take work to fail a course,” Stewart laughed. “I didn’t really believe it, and then I saw the grades coming out.” He thought, “Oh, you mean you could have gotten a zero on all the homework and still passed the course?”
Now, without the pressure of grades weighing him down, Palmer hopes to be more involved in campus activities. But a college social life is difficult when he is three times as old as most students and goes to bed at 9:30 p.m.
“I see these parties that start at 10 p.m. and go until 2:30 a.m. — I vividly remember doing that when I was that age, but that’s not where I am these days,” Palmer laughs.
Instead, Palmer occasionally goes to tea at the Elizabethan Club and spends the weekends in New York or on Long Island. At the end of last semester, he and wife also hosted Palmer’s “Disasters in America” seminar for a dinner party in their apartment on Wooster Square.
“It’s tons of fun being married to a college student,” Priscilla says. “He brings home his work, and we talk about it. It’s all very exciting.” Last fall, when Palmer’s stepdaughter had a law exam on the same day as Stewart’s economics midterm, the pair commiserated about how much studying they both had to do.
Palmer remembers thinking last August that the final two years of completing his degree would pass slowly. Now he thinks, “I can’t possibly take all the courses I want to take in two years.”
“One of the things I liked about my job was that I got to learn something new every 18 to 24 months,” Stewart said. “But once you know just enough to do the work, you do the work and you’re done. Here, you’re learning stuff just for the sake of learning it. Where else do you get to do that?”
“Stewart brought a passion for the classroom that, I guess, comes only after years of being out of one,” Olsen said.
Palmer has no postgraduation plans yet, but he’ll consider going on to complete a master’s degree in history. If one thing is certain, he won’t be “going off to rot on the beach.”
Palmer has never attended a reunion for the class of 1969, but he noticed that 2014 will be its 45th anniversary. He just might show up for that reunion a couple of weeks after he graduates next May.