Raymond Gardner’s friends call him “Rusty,” but now they’ll also know him as “college graduate.” Rusty and his children, Jordan and Amy, also earned the same distinction as all three received degrees during spring 2012 commencement exercises at the University of Tennessee at Martin. Next spring, wife, Marchell, will receive her degree, completing the Gardner family’s circle of college graduates.
The journey to commencement began more than 30 years ago as Rusty entered UT Martin in 1980 to study business administration and continue his football career. Raised in Dresden as the youngest of four children, he excelled in football at Dresden High School. While his college football career as a strong safety was a success, he struggled academically. “I was having too much fun I guess,” he recalled. “Got in trouble academically, … sat out a little while, then never did just go back.” By this time, he was married, then Jordan and Amy came along, and working replaced finishing college as a priority.
He first worked with his uncle as a painter and also held a second job a casual carrier for the U.S. Postal Service. He next worked almost 10 years as a supervisor at Rebel Screeners in Sharon before landing a job with Goodyear in Union City through The Hamilton-Ryker Co. In 1998, he was hired through Goodyear as anarea manager and later became a shift coordinator.
Rusty earned a good living, but Marchell, the long-term care ombudsman for Northwest Tennessee Human Resource Agency, never let him forget about his unfinished degree. “My wife attempted to get me to go back several times, but I was salary at Goodyear, and I was afraid that as soon as I went back to college – you know, being salary, I didn’t have my choice of what shift I wanted to be on,” he said.
Life happened again in February 2011 when Rusty heard in the news that the company was “intending to shut down Goodyear in Union City.” The words “intending to” were critical as this created hope that the shutdown wouldn’t occur. Then on Sunday, July 10, the third shift reported for work but posted on Facebook that they were told to gather their belongings and leave. Rusty reported Monday with the second shift, and the same thing happened.
When he arrived early, as was his custom, management directed workers to a meeting room; later, the hourly workers collected their belongings and left. The managers could stay until the hourly workers left, and then they could leave.
“… My wife called me, said that FedEx had just dropped off a certified letter, and sheread it to me, and they told me that I no longer had a job at Goodyear. That’s the way they actually let me know,” he said. He hoped to stay with the company longer, but the only persons who remained were those accepting assignments at other plants. The Gardners considered transferring, but they saw this as anopportunity for Rusty to complete his degree. He enrolled in fall 2011 to join three other family members attending the university.
Marchell first came to UT Martin in 1978 where she’s taken classes periodically for 30 years. A licensed practical nurse, she has worked in health care since 1983. The year 2009 was a turning point when a friend told her that the two wouldcomplete a four-year degree together. “She has not let me quit, and it’s been wonderful, because I feel like I’ve been a role model for my husband and for my kids, …” Marchell said.
For Jordan and Amy, the financial impact of Goodyear’s closing was one matter, but seeing their parents taking classes was something else entirely. Jordan, who received a degree in health and human performance, seldom saw his parents on campus, but he did see his dad transform into a college student.
“… We don’t eat at our dining room table,” he said. “And our dining room table is literally covered with papers and books and pens from this constant studying, note-taking that he sits there and does on a regular basis. And I always joke with him and tell him that, you know, in my five years of college, I don’t think I’ve done as much studying as he’s done in two semesters.”
Amy, who earned a business administration degree, agreed that having the entire family on campus was different. “It was weird at first,” she said. “It was OK when it was just mama, because you don’t see her as much, but once it was all four of us, it was definitely weird, but you got use to it. And it was funny with mama and daddy, because they compete to make higher grades, and when they study together, it’s just funny.”
Rusty and Marchell had to make some adjustments as well, especially when the couple took classes together. “It’s just awful,” she said laughing as she recalled taking classes with her husband. “I call him the overachiever. … He has just blossomed I should say. But he pushes me, and so sometimes I have to say, ‘We have two different learning styles. We have two different studying styles, and in the end, I’m always going to be smarter. We just have a different way of arriving to that,’” she said.
While his other family members were already accustomed to college, Rusty was adjusting to classes in which he was often the oldest student. On one occasion, a femalestudent called him “Mr. Rusty,” and the professor laughed and said, “‘Did you hear that? You hear the respect she gave you? I don’t think I’ve ever had a student call another one ‘mister’ in my class.’”
He said walking into the classroom the first semester was hard, but he saw more nontraditional students the second semester, some of them former Goodyear co-workers. “I was one of the lucky ones that I was able to get in fall semester (2011), and it wasn’t easy,” he said, crediting Beth Edwards, university studies coordinator, for guiding him through the process.
Rusty knows that he couldn’t have finished his degree without Marchell’s support, explaining, “So she’s got two jobs, she’s a full-time student, she’s got two hard-headed kids and a husband without a job. So she’s the hero of the family.” Besides her hectic schedule, Marchell also battles personal health problems. Combined with the Goodyear closure, the family has succeeded in college despite significant challenges.
As for graduating with Jordan and Amy, Rusty said, “I’m more excited than they are. I mean, it means a lot. I want them to be able to get a job that they like.” One of his philosophy teachers told Rusty’s class, “‘When you have a job you like, you never go to work a day of your life.’ So I want them to be able to go to a job that they like going to every day,” he said, quickly adding, “Of course, I want them to make a lot of money and be successful and remember old dad.”
Rusty will use his 25 years of management experience and new degree to re-enter the job market. Jordan will seek his first full-time position, and Amy plans to enter the MBA program this fall at Middle Tennessee State University.
Marchell will celebrate for different reasons when she graduates. “It’s really a personal challenge for me. It’s a ‘bucket list’ kind of thing. I’m perfectly happy in the job that I have,” she said, adding, “It’s taken me 30 years, but I’m going to get it, and it’s something that once I have it (her degree), nobody can take that away from me.”
Legendary baseball pitcher Satchel Paige is known for saying, “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.”
Rusty, Jordan and Amy Gardner aren’t looking back as they face the future with college degrees in hand.
If anything is gaining on them, it’s the family hero, Marchell, who’ll join the rest of the Gardner family in May 2013 as the family’s next college graduate.