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Posted on Tue. May. 13, 2014 - 12:31 am EDT

Local man, 67, to receive IPFW degree after 50 years of obstacles

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What: IPFW’s 47th commencement ceremony

When: 4 p.m. Wednesday

Where: Memorial Coliseum

Cost: Free

Clark Hamilton couldn’t stop the tears from falling as he shared the reason his age and deteriorating health wouldn’t stop him from finishing his bachelor’s degree at IPFW.

“I have an 89-year-old mother, and this is my gift to her,” Hamilton said, wiping back the tears just before they reached his cheeks. “She’s been my biggest encouragement going through this process, and I want her to know that I share this degree with her.

“I want her to see that I’ve accomplished what I set out to do because she’s what has kept me focused.”

At the age of 67, Hamilton will be among the oldest of IPFW’s 1,928 graduates to walk across the stage Wednesday at tMemorial Coliseum.

Though health issues will prevent his mother, Lucy Jeanette Hamilton, from attending the graduation ceremony, Hamilton knows she’s cheering him on from West Virginia.

It’s the next step in what Hamilton calls his 50-year journey – the first of several degrees he hopes to obtain.

“My health is deteriorating, but I’d rather spend whatever time I have left trying to get all of those academic accomplishments. I’d rather do that and spend the remainder of my life learning than have the groundhogs delivering my mail,” Hamilton said with a wink.

“I want to leave my legacy. I hope people can take from this that Clark waited a long time to get his degree, but he did it.”

Education deterred

Hamilton grew up in the small town of Paw Paw, West Virginia. He was eligible for the draft into the Vietnam War but decided to pursue his education instead.

In September 1964, he signed up for classes at Shepherd University, about an hour from his home in Paw Paw, and began studying elementary education.

But when he received his draft lottery number and learned he wouldn’t be sent to war, he later dropped out, three college courses and 16 hours of student teaching shy of receiving his bachelor’s degree.

In 1970, Hamilton took a job with the YMCA in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and, in November 1973, moved to Fort Wayne.

He started a family with his wife, Ernestine, and together they had seven children – all boys.

Throughout his various careers, Hamilton mentored inner-city children, was a parks and recreation director, drove a school bus and later transported RVs in Goshen and Elkhart.

Over time, he was diagnosed with diabetes, glaucoma and hypertension. In 2009, he learned he had prostate cancer, and a week later, he was diagnosed with colon cancer.

For several weeks, he kept the news from everyone, but he finally told his mother. He continued working in the Wayne Township Trustee’s Office and for Easter Seals Arc Northeast Indiana but driving became impossible as his health worsened.

Hamilton became depressed and for several months struggled with uncertainty.

“I was trying to figure out my destiny. Trying to figure out what was next,” he said. “Then this one day I was laying there on the couch and I said to myself, ‘This is not you, Clark.’ ”

One of his bucket list items was to get a degree, so he decided to start there.

He enrolled in classes at IPFW in the summer of 2013 and began working toward a bachelor’s degree in general studies.

A role model

Starting over in a classroom filled with younger, tech-savvy students wasn’t easy, especially as Hamilton was defined as legally blind.

But with the help of audio books, text-to-speak programs and monitors to enlarge text for Hamilton to see, he continued on.

He gives credit for his success to IPFW professors for providing lessons in larger text, library staff who taught him to work the computers, students who helped take notes during lectures and Fort Wayne’s League for the Blind and Disabled.

Despite health issues, Hamilton has perfect attendance and always makes thoughtful comments during class discussions, said Chris Erickson, associate professor of history for IPFW.

“I think he and other older students are wonderful role models for the younger students,” Erickson said in a letter. “Just because he is old doesn’t mean that learning stops.

“Determination and persistence are two qualities that Clark has that make him a success.”

Although Wednesday’s ceremony will mark a special day for Hamilton, he’s not done yet.

He recently applied for IPFW’s liberal arts and science master’s program where he plans to study communication to help prepare him to write his memoirs.

From there, the possibilities are endless, he said, but one day, he hopes to be called “doctor.”

“They’ll call me Dr. Clark Russell Hamilton, the guy with the three first and last names,” he said, with a laugh.

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