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For the love of education

For the love of education

In 1970, John and Shirley Stephenson became the first married couple to graduate together at UMHB

For every student, graduation represents the fruition of many long hours. For John ’70 and Shirley Stephenson ’70, the first married couple to ever pick up their diplomas in the same UMHB ceremony, it was the celebration of an especially long journey.

On graduation day, John and Shirley Stephenson pause for a photo with Shirley’s father, Don Hughes, and their daughters Kimberly and Brandy.

When they met, John and Shirley were both already enlisted in the Army. From the very beginning, they knew their life together would be dictated, in large part, by whatever shipping orders they received.

“I promised her when we first got married that she could go to college whenever we got stationed somewhere with a good school,” John said.

Shirley held him to that pledge, and when the couple found themselves stationed at Fort Hood, she hit the ground running.

“I started in the first class at Central Texas College (CTC) and went straight through until they didn’t have any more courses for me,” she said, “so I transferred to Mary Hardin-Baylor.”

Sure that her family might get moving orders at any moment, she pushed herself to graduate within three years.
“I went year-round, all the minimesters, any kind of ‘mester’ they had,” Shirley said.

At the same time, John was working to get his own degree. He applied for and was accepted into the Army’s degree completion program, Operation Bootstrap. After a second tour in Vietnam, he was able to attend Mary Hardin-Baylor, but the clock was ticking.

“Bootstrap was competitive. The less time it would take you to finish, the better the chance you had of acceptance,” John said, “so I said I could finish in six months.”

To accelerate his path to a degree, John would read books for courses and then test out of them. He received credit for half a dozen courses this way. While he was at Mary Hardin-Baylor, John also took correspondence courses from the United States Armed Forces Institute. He even registered for a computer class at CTC when one would not fit into his schedule. Between these three institutions, John was able to carry 23 hours in a single spring semester.

“He was a good student,” Shirley said. “He made very good grades, too.”

For Shirley, balancing the roles of wife, mother, and full-time student meant having to be creative with time management. Each day after class, she would pick her two daughters up from daycare, make dinner, and get everyone to bed by eight. She would then wake up at four in the morning to study and do her homework before getting everyone up, fed, and off to school.

“It was fun to do it together because it was for a common cause,” Shirley said of attending school alongside John. “We had goals, and we were going to reach those goals no matter what.”

Shirley remembers their graduation as a celebration of much more than academic success.

“He had been in Vietnam for two year-long tours, and at that time I didn’t know if he would even be back,” she said. “To finish school together… It was a blessing that we never expected would happen.”

-James Stafford