A very special graduate is #foreverazip
By Julie A Cajigas, Professor of Practice
Sitting in a physics class at The University of Akron, Robert Greathouse was perplexed. He was staring at the final exam, realizing that all five questions required the same, lengthy equation.
“I thought, I’m dead,” Greathouse said, with a smirk. He knew which equation he needed, but he couldn’t quite visualize it.
He looked carefully at the questions one more time, and then he saw it. There was a piece of the long equation, cleverly formulated as part of each of the five questions. In disbelief, he started to solve the problems, one by one.
“When I finished, I was the first one done in the classroom. I walked up, leaned over, and whispered in the professor’s ear,” he said. “He just grinned from ear to ear.”
Robert Greathouse’s educational journey was a lot like that physics exam. The equation for a degree was hidden in the dozens of courses he took to get the tools he needed for his career. It finally revealed itself, also with a smile, when he received his very first college degree at age 93.
Greathouse wasn’t aiming for a degree from 1958 to 1993, when he took classes at The University of Akron (UA).
“When I was doing it, that wasn’t my intent,” Greathouse said, of earning a diploma. “My intent was to get the tools I needed to succeed, and I did.”
Those tools allowed him to build a successful career in aerospace.
“I figured out what they were, and then UA supplied them,” said Greathouse. “And I enjoyed it.”
Robert Greathouse '23
The journey Greathouse took to receive that diploma was not without some bumps along the way, the most recent of which inspired his family to reach out to UA.
In May of 2023, Greathouse fell and broke his hip and his left wrist. Prior to that, he had been living independently with his wife, and the fall meant a move from their home to a rehab facility in Fairlawn, Ohio.
His daughter, seeking a special birthday gift to cheer him up, sent a ‘Hail Mary’ email to the registrar’s office at The University of Akron to see if there might be a chance for her father to receive an honorary diploma.
“I’ve never known anyone who has wanted an education more than my dad,” Jane Rotsching said. “I thought of this for his birthday; that this would be a great birthday present.”
Rotsching wasn’t quite sure what to expect, if anything at all. Luckily, her email found its way to Dr. Ann Usher, senior associate dean in the Buchtel College of Arts and Sciences, where Greathouse had been enrolled as a student all those years ago.
Usher recognized in the transcripts what anyone who speaks to Greathouse can almost automatically discern: he is a man with a lifelong love of learning, and person who believes in earning success through hard work.
She went one step further than an honorary diploma, and looked to see if awarding Greathouse an earned degree would be possible based on the courses he had completed.
And so, on Monday, Aug. 14, 2023, 30 years after he took his last class and 65 years after he took his first, the thoughtful birthday request from Jane Rotsching and the insightfulness and diligence of Associate Dean Ann Usher culminated in Robert Greathouse becoming the oldest University of Akron Student to earn a degree – an Associate of Technical Studies.
And so, for the second time in his life, Greathouse was part of a uniquely small graduating class. His high school had a graduating class of just 18. His university graduation in Aug. of 2023 had a graduating class of one.
It is unlikely that Greathouse could have anticipated this moment back in 1948 when his family moved from their home near East High School in Akron to a farm in Medina.
“There were 18 of us in the graduating class at Sharon Center High School,” said Greathouse. “I made the ninth boy, which made some ninth girl very happy,” he said with a smile, recalling how the girls and boys marched for graduation two-by-two.
The move to a smaller district wasn’t quite so fortuitous for Greathouse. It meant that he couldn’t complete the advanced science courses he had enjoyed at East High. When his grades started to slip, his father wasn’t too happy, but his sister was quick to reveal a potential reason.
“Well daddy, he teaches the class part of the time, because he knows more than she [the teacher] does,” Greathouse said, recalling what his sister told their father.
At that time, recalls Rotsching, her father didn’t have college on his mind. “He worked on his dad’s farm because he didn’t think he was college material,” she said.
When young men started to be drafted for the Korean War, Greathouse decided to enlist on his own terms, so he had some choice in the branch of the military he would join. He chose the Air Force and trained to become an airplane mechanic.
According to his daughter, he originally wanted to join the Navy, but he didn’t like the dress uniform. “I’ve always told him, what a great way to pick dad,” Rotsching said.
After becoming an accomplished mechanic, he returned stateside in 1954 and was hired by Goodyear Aerospace, a start-up that was looking for experienced hands.
After a few years, Greathouse determined that he needed additional tools to begin his career, so in 1958, he began taking classes at The University of Akron.
The University of Akron he experienced back then was quite a bit different than the one he visited this past Monday to receive his diploma.
“For most of my time there, about 50% of the student body was made up of ex-GIs,” he said. Rather than traditional students, many veterans aged 20-30 with children and families had decided to go back to school.
“We were older, and had more street smarts,” he said. “We also had an older outlook than our actual age.” He attributed this to lessons learned in basic training.
“One of the first thing you learn in basic training is that there are things in life over which you have no control – no control at all,” he said. “What you learn to do is, you make jokes about them – and it works.”
Greathouse said that serving their country gave ex-GIs, himself included, a deeper desire to learn.
When asked about his favorite courses, the first one that came to mind apparently wasn’t too popular among his classmates.
“One of the comments I had heard from other students who had taken the speech class was that they really hated it,” he said. “I don’t remember the reasons why, but they did.”
Not Greathouse, though.
“I loved that speech class,” he said. “The individual that taught it was a part-time professor, and he was very good.”
Greathouse recalls the professor bringing in photographs torn from magazines and newspapers and having the students create impromptu speeches they would deliver on the spot.
“Sometimes what a person said about a particular photograph was really hilarious, depending on the individual,” he said.
The class also included speeches that taught some unconventional skills.
“One speaker taught us how to hang ten on a surfboard while standing on the eight-foot-long tables in the classroom,” Greathouse said. “Another demonstrated how to make an ice cream sundae, and after finishing it, he ate it right in front of us.”
One thing he still remembers from the Speech class was the three strikes you’re out rule. If students missed three class sessions, they would automatically fail the course.
It taught him an important lesson about rhetoric. “The professor said the reason for the rule was that for a speaker to work a crowd, there has to be an audience,” said Greathouse. “If we weren’t there to be the audience, we would get an F for that.”
He certainly utilized his rhetorical training to speak at his recent college graduation ceremony. Not only did he deliver moving remarks to the crowd, but he also gave multiple media interviews afterward to the eager news outlets standing by. His speech teacher would be proud.
Another UA story that stuck with Greathouse was one from English Composition class.
“I happened to get an instructor who was the former head of the English department at Akron Public Schools,” said Greathouse. He thought he had an ace up his sleeve in that he had a friend who taught English for the district as well.
His plan was to draft his papers for class and have his English teacher friend review them and make corrections. “I made my corrections according to her comments and submitted the paper,” said Greathouse.
To his surprise and dismay, his paper came back bleeding red ink. “That’s when I learned an important life lesson: No two English teachers think alike,” he said with a chuckle.
After working several years at Goodyear Aerospace, lay-offs were looming. Greathouse made a move to Lear-Siegler in Maple Heights, where he would eventually become a test engineer.
“By that time, he had six kids and took classes one or two per semester, always at night,” Rotsching said. Her mother worked as a nurse from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. and her father worked during the day and came home before going to class.
“I have no idea how they made it work,” she said.
Another change in the aerospace landscape shifted the way Greathouse worked and led him back to The University of Akron for more coursework – the PC.
He recalls seeing the very first PC in the office, and how impressed he and his colleagues were. He worked in a different department, but the colleague with the computer let him use it sometimes.
“It was great!” he said. “The things you could do with that PC were something else.”
His daughter has a slightly different recollection of her early experiences with the PC. She recalls her family being on the cutting edge of technology due to her father’s work and schooling, which sometimes had unexpected consequences.
“When I was a junior in high school, I had to write this big history paper, and I printed it out from the computer,” Rotsching said. Along with her siblings, she attended Catholic school, which her father chose, despite not being Catholic himself, because he felt it offered his children the best education.
The nun who received the homework paper was, nonplussed, to put it lightly. “She was like – what is this blasphemy?” Rotsching said with a chuckle. “What is a computer, she asked?”
Meanwhile, at Lear-Siegler, Greathouse was moving up. His quality control team designed their own test equipment because their product was one-of-a-kind.
“I worked my way up to where I was starting to design test equipment and it was time to go to computerized testing,” he said.
“Guess who was going to program it?” he said. “We were!”
So, back to The University of Akron for computer programming courses he went. Greathouse loved programming. “I don’t know how it is for other people,” he said, “but it’s addictive! I would get home and I would start doing some programming on one of our PCs and I’d be there at 10 p.m., and two hours later I was still at it.”
The career Greathouse built on the strength of his Airforce mechanic’s training, his education from The University of Akron, and his incredible curiosity and love of learning was an impressive one. Technology he tested is still being used around the world today.
“Dad tells a story a lot about how as he got toward the end of his career, he would interview people for positions and they would spout off their education, and he would say ‘I don’t even have a bachelor’s, so that doesn’t impress me, what I want to know is what you can do,’” Rotsching said.
When you talk to any of his children, you can immediately hear the deep respect they have for their father.
“Dad sets a goal and then he does it,” Mary Batyko, another of the seven siblings said. “The whole time we were growing up, we would watch him go to work, come home, go to school, come back, eat his dinner and take his books out and start working away.”
Batyko recalls Greathouse having a desk set up in her brother’s room where his study supplies lived.
“We just knew that we were expected to go to college,” Batyko said. “There was never a conversation with my parents about going to college, we just knew.”
All seven of Greathouse’s children attended college, and four of them graduated from The University of Akron before their father: Robert P. Greathouse, with a Bachelor of Business Administration in ’84; Mary Ellen Batyko, with a Bachelor of Special Education in ’81; Richard Kevin Greathouse, with an Associate of Computer Science and Bachelor of Business Administration - Accounting in ’83; and Timothy Greathouse with a Bachelor of Business Administration – Marketing in ’85.
His other three children attended Xavier University and University of Pittsburgh.
“His push and desire for us to go further than he did made him such a special dad,” Rotsching said. “Even today, my husband gave him a book about warplanes and he’s sitting there reading it, telling my children about different planes.”
When Rotsching broke the birthday surprise news, her father’s reaction surprised her. “My father is not a crier, but when I told him, he started crying and asked, ‘they really remembered me?’” she said.
As his daughter read off the courses and grades on his transcript, he sat there, stunned. He thought he was forgotten because he hadn’t been there in so long.
In preparing for the big day, his children asked him if he wanted to wear a cap and gown. He wore his grandson’s.
When asked what it felt like to wear a cap and gown, his voice wavered. “There’s nothing like it after all this time. It’s not exactly overpowering, but – I can’t describe it,” he said.
The graduation ceremony went off without a hitch. A group of faculty members donned their academic regalia to form Greathouse’s platform party, just as they do at every other University graduation. The atrium of the College of Arts and Sciences building was bright and open, and filled with news cameras, media and Greathouse’s adoring entourage.
In addition to the traditional speeches and conferral of degrees by the president and provost, Greathouse also had a special guest at his commencement. Zippy, the University’s famed mascot was there wearing her cap and gown to celebrate the occasion.
During the commencement, Robert Greathouse sat beaming while his family behind him struggled to hold back tears. With his wife holding his hand, he sat surrounded by his children, grandchildren, family, and friends, listening to UA leaders talking about his accomplishments.
“You never imagine watching your parent do that, and it was so exciting,” said Mary Batyko. “I was so impressed by how much everyone did [for dad], the University just went above and beyond,” she said.
His son, Tim Greathouse, also felt deeply honored to see his father graduate - 40 years after Tim earned his own B.B,A, from the University. He talked lovingly about his father, recalling playing catch between work and study time.
“He earned everything that he ever did,” said Tim Greathouse, “so I’m so glad to see him getting his just rewards.”
Robert Greathouse also feels a great deal of pride – in his family. “It’s been a pleasure to see my children graduate over the years; I am so proud of them,” he said. “They’ve all done well in their adult lives, and I like the values they’ve got,” he said.
After a pause, another smirk. “In spite of me.”
It’s clear that the character of Robert Greathouse’s children is, at least in part, the product of having a father who loves his children, loves learning and values education deeply.
Of course, Greathouse shied away from praise a bit and turned the spotlight back on the University itself.
“I will be eternally grateful for the fact that The University of Akron exists,” he said. “It was a place to get a good education near home, and not break the bank.”
He also had some words of advice for current students.
“Enjoy your time in school. I don’t mean just the time playing. Enjoy the experience,” he said. “I think I liked all the professors I ever had. I made a lot of good friends, and I got the tools I needed to get a better job.”
Welcome to an incredible cohort of University of Akron Alumni all around the world Mr. Greathouse, and remember - you were and are #ForeverAZip.
Media Contact: Cristine Boyd; firstname.lastname@example.org; 330-972-6476