Murdoch Campbell, 84, to Walk at Commencement, Then Return to Class
Posted on December 6, 2017
When 84-year-old Murdoch Newton Campbell strides across the Mitchell Center stage on Dec. 9 to receive his bachelor's degree in Interdisciplinary Studies - Applied Sciences concentration, he may become the oldest graduate of the University of South Alabama in its 54-year history.
“We don’t track student age, so we can’t verify that he is the oldest graduate,” said Kelly Osterbind, University registrar. “But, I can say that no one here remembers any graduate near that age before.”
Campbell, usually clad in jeans and a polo shirt, is a genial conversationalist who looks and moves at least 10 years younger than his age. On campus, he’s made friends with young students, faculty, staff and administrators who like him for his sensibility, easy-going personality, classroom participation and work ethic.
“When I came here, I was worried that the students were going to treat me differently, but I got to be friends with most of them, and now they holler at me in the hallway when they see me,” Campbell said. “Never in my life have I thought about age, but when I walk into a room of younger people, I don’t try to be young. I didn’t want to be treated any differently, and I wasn’t.”
"When I came here, I was worried that the students were going to treat me differently, but I got to be friends with most of them, and now they holler at me in the hallway when they see me."
When South was chartered in 1963, Campbell was already a graduate of Vigor High School (Class of ’50) who’d served during the Korean War as a paratrooper with the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division and was becoming known as a dependable employee at various local companies. He was also a man who read voraciously and enjoyed a series of challenging hobbies. They included lapidary, taxidermy (“I had dead pigeons all over the house.”), woodworking, gardening (“My gardens looked like they should have been in Better Homes and Gardens, but I’m still trying to clear the bamboo from my yard.”), piloting airplanes, motorcycles (“A wreck shattered a disk in my back, and that ended that one.”) and stamp collecting, among others.
After retiring 20 years ago, Campbell did some consulting, traveling across the U.S., based on his extensive expertise of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. After “a bad back” forced his retirement from consulting “because of the driving,” he puttered with more hobbies before deciding going to college would be a good way to keep his mind active.
“When I told my wife I was thinking about taking some classes at South, she said I was crazy. I told her I’d never had the opportunity to go to college, but I finally could afford to do it, and I had the time to do it. Besides, going to school would keep me from sitting and staring at that bamboo, trying to figure out how to wrestle with it,” Campbell added, chuckling.
The Mobile native grew up in Midtown near the intersection of St. Stephens Road with Springhill Avenue and North Ann Street, an area once popularly called Five Points because of the numerous road intersections. His father died while Campbell was young, and his mother, a nurse, became the major breadwinner for him and his sister.
“My mother was an operating room nurse at one time, and my sister and I grew up with her talking about operations. That made me want to be a doctor so bad but going to college was just unheard of in those days for some people,” he related.
Campbell didn’t intend to earn a degree when he started classes at South about 10 years ago.
“I wanted to learn Spanish, so I picked that,” he said. “Oh, and I signed up for math and physics. I was always pretty good at math. My first couple of classes, I made ‘As,’ and I said ‘Gee, I didn’t know the brain would still work, so I kept on going.’”
"My first couple of classes, I made ‘As,’ and I said ‘Gee, I didn’t know the brain would still work, so I kept on going.’”
He is expected to graduate with an overall grade point average of 3.89.
When he walked into a geography class, he found his true north of academia.
“Someone had recommended the class to me, and you talk about stepping into quicksand, that’s exactly what it was,” Campbell recalled. Fortunately, his teacher was the late Dr. Glenn Sebastian, one of South’s most beloved faculty members, who died in 2016 at the age of 74.
“I really enjoyed his classes. He knew his stuff, and he was like a big teddy bear. He used to talk to me about turning 70 years old, and I told him that was nothing because I was eight years older than him,” Campbell said.
One of his greatest joys inside the classroom has been sharing facts and trivia about Mobile and his life – the facts not inside textbooks.
“We were talking about Pearl Harbor in class one day, and I mentioned that I remember hearing on the radio that America had been bombed. I was about 9, and I was helping my mother with the Christmas lights,” Campbell said. “Those young students couldn’t hardly believe I was that old. I’ve shared how ‘Old Mobile’ was before west Mobile even began. Lots of these areas out here were swamps in those days. I’ve enjoyed sharing that history.”
He added that many faculty members have commented on his work ethic, something that was instilled in him during his growing-up years. It’s also something he’s discussed with young students. He’s also enjoyed that some of his teachers have let him teach classes because of his personal knowledge of a subject or event.
“One of the young men wanted to know why I made better grades than he did,” Campbell said. “I told him it’s because my wife wouldn’t let me go out, drink and raise hell like the young students do.”
At home these days, he’s often on his computer, either studying or trying to learn more about a subject or topic that’s caught his interest. “I’ve always been inquisitive, and I’ve always wanted to know how things worked. And, I really don’t watch television. I’d rather be learning something.”
Invariably, people are asking Campbell if he plans to begin graduate studies in January.
“Oh, I’m coming back to take more classes, but I don’t plan to get a master’s degree because I don’t enjoy writing papers,” Campbell said. “I want to get a second undergraduate degree in geology because I’m so fascinated with it.”
He added, “Look, I can’t sit still. I’ve pretty much always been like that.”
As for statements about how he must be proud of his accomplishments, he brushes them off.
“I’ve truly enjoyed just about all my time out here, and I’ve enjoyed all the people I’ve studied with, but it was hard work. I didn’t drift right through. You don’t do that at 84 years old, no matter how much you enjoy it,” Campbell said. “I’m crazy about South, and being here has become addictive to me, and it’s as much home to me as home is, and I hope to keep enjoying it.”
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