A degree 41 years in the makingIf you’re headed to the University of Wisconsin-Superior winter commencement ceremony Saturday, be prepared to “Have Fun or Get Out of the Way.” Telegram columnist, webcaster, businessman and long-time youth sports coach Don Leighton is adding another title to his list – college graduate.
By: Maria Lockwood, Superior Telegram
If you’re headed to the University of Wisconsin-Superior winter commencement ceremony Saturday, be prepared to “Have Fun or Get Out of the Way.” Telegram columnist, webcaster, businessman and long-time youth sports coach Don Leighton is adding another title to his list – college graduate. Not only is the 59-year-old walking across the stage Saturday, he is slated to be the student speaker.
“I honestly think he’s got some really great things to say,” said Katelyn Baumann, vice president of the student government association. “He has such a great message; he was the perfect choice.”
Leighton will be the oldest graduating student to give the commencement address, according to UWS spokesman Al Miller, and the first student from the distance learning program to do so.
“I don’t think anyone with Don’s seniority has spoken in recent memory,” he said.
Peter Nordgren, interim associate vice chancellor for academic affairs and outreach, nominated Leighton for the gig.
“I nominated Don because I think his story represents many of the adult students we work with at UW-Superior,” he said. “I also nominated Don because he tells his story well. He has what every graduation speaker needs: A great sense of humor.”
Every UWS student is unique, said Tammy Fanning, director of student life, but Leighton is especially intriguing.
“He’s been going to school for a few years,” she said. “He’s taken a while to get it done.”
Forty-one years, to be exact. And the 1969 Northwestern High School graduate is eager to pass on the wisdom he’s learned.
“It’s mostly about humor and trying to make a difference,” Leighton said. For the Superior man, it is also about making connections.
“One of my goals in life is to meet 10 new people every day,” Leighton said. So he says “Hi” to people as they pass and opens doors for others despite their raised eyebrows.
The speech won’t be ad lib, much to Leighton’s regret. And, he promised, it will only last 10 minutes. He’s included a spot for audience participation and plenty of jokes.
His message to students is to find the positive in every situation and look for ways to give back.
“The glass is always half full,” he said. Sometimes you have to fold and get a new hand; sometimes you have to make a change, but whining doesn’t help, he said
“As you can see, I have a lot to say,” Leighton said with a chuckle.
When he graduated from Northwestern High School, Leighton first attended Northland College in Ashland, then UWS, in pursuit of a teaching degree. When he realized he didn’t want to be a teacher, Leighton left school and went into the business world. He was 24 credits shy of graduating.
The Superior man tried to finish his Bachelor of Science degree through correspondence courses a few times, but he was too busy.
“Business, kids, my life took precedence,” he said. And the unfinished degree dangled there, an item on a bucket list. For years, his friend and webcasting partner Pat Flynn has been pushing him to finish it. Finally, Leighton told himself: “I gotta do this.”
It took a push from UWS women’s soccer coach Melissa Nelmark and the combined talents of many UWS staff members to guide the Superior man down the path to graduation.
“I needed somebody to tell me ‘It will be OK,’ not difficult,” Leighton said. Nelmark did just that. And she connected him with other UWS staff to help.
Like many adult students who return to school, Leighton found that his work and community experiences qualified him for college credits.
“Experience is the best teacher, that’s what I’ve always been told,” Leighton said. He proved that by earning all his missing credits without opening a textbook. Instead, he transformed the thousands of hours he spent coaching youth sports into practicum credits, collecting reference letters to bolster his request. His portfolio is now 80 pages long and includes praise from broadcasting, radio and newspaper personalities as well as youth he coached.
“I’m keeping it for my funeral,” he joked.
His actual diploma – a physical education major with a psychology minor – arrived in the mail in August.
Now, Leighton has come full circle: The man who didn’t want to teach plans to work as a substitute teacher in the Superior school district.
“Irony of ironies,” he said with a laugh.
With his daughter’s graduation this spring and a son poised to graduate soon, Leighton’s new degree is part of a family hat trick. It has also led to a lot of media attention for the Superior man. It surprises him that others think his graduation is newsworthy, although it means a lot to him.
“The fact that I did it is a big deal to me,” he said. “I never thought I would.”