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Wednesday, Apr. 23, 2014

25 years later, it's graduation time again

Friday, May 4, 2007

NEW MADRID -- If it meant giving up things like hunting trips to Colorado and tickets to the Masters Tournament in Augusta, Ga., then Ralph Palmer said so be it.

To Palmer, earning a second college degree was well worth the sacrifices.

On Monday, the 47-year-old New Madrid resident will take his final college exam in organic chemistry, making him eligible to receive a Bachelor of Arts in chemistry from Southeast Missouri State University -- 25 years after earning his first bachelor's degree.

Palmer graduated from the Cape Girardeau college in 1982 with a communications degree and pursued a career in promotions. Since the late 1980s, he has worked at Associated Electric Cooperative Inc. in New Madrid.

His journey to return to college began in the summer of 1999, when Palmer, then 40, wanted to get a job in the plant's lab. With financial assistance from his employer through a continuing education program, Palmer decided to go back to school to pursue his degree in chemistry.

"It was terrible," Palmer admitted about his first day back to school. "It was hard. It was really difficult. Back when I first got out of college, I loved it."

He continued: "... Whenever you're 40 years old, and everybody is 18 to 20 years old, you're old enough to be their dad, it's not easy."

By August 2000, Palmer got a job in the lab so he stopped pursuing his degree, he said. A few years later, Palmer became lab supervisor, and the company asked him if he wanted to finish his degree.

"I had only eight classes left, and I needed almost 50 hours so I started up again in fall 2004," Palmer recalled.

After being out of school for 20 years, it wasn't technological advances that challenged Palmer -- he was familiar with computers through work. It was the fact he was in a field he'd never really studied before, he said.

"Whether 18 or 48, you're struggling when it comes to chemistry," Palmer said.

Palmer was taking classes like quantitative and qualitative analysis, physics and calculus.

"Every class was hard. It was such a far cry from what I wanted to do in the beginning," Palmer said.

Although Palmer had taken an entry-level chemistry class in the late 1970s, his adviser recommended he retake the class when he returned to college.

"I'm glad I did because other elements had been discovered since then," Palmer laughed.

The commute was also trying.

"It's an hour-long drive up there, and I was working the swing shift. I'd get off at 7 a.m. and have an 8 a.m. class. At noon, I'd drive home and try to sleep a little bit," Palmer said.

Throughout the years, there was only one course Palmer could take at Southeast Missouri State University-Sikeston; the rest of his classes were offered only at the Cape Girardeau campus.

Palmer said he didn't have many opportunities for studying, but he managed to makes As and Bs throughout his second college career.

Palmer doesn't plan to walk with his fellow graduates during Southeast's May 12 commencement; he did that the first time he graduated, he said. However, Palmer does plan to make up for lost time.

"I've got a lot of things to do that have built up over the past three years," Palmer said.

Once Palmer is officially awarded his degree, he'll become the plant chemist. Earning a degree in chemistry also means no more swing shift; Palmer will have a Monday through Friday day job.

Without support from his family and employer, Palmer said obtaining his degree wouldn't have been possible.

"Associated has been fantastic," Palmer said. "For them to offer me the opportunity and to be able to take advantage of the continuing education program has been wonderful, and the guys at work have been great."

Palmer and his wife, Marsha, have two daughters, Paige, 15, and Emilee, 10. "I'm very proud of him," Mrs. Palmer said of her husband. "He's set a wonderful example for our girls."

Both Palmer and his wife said his success has been a family effort. "The kids have had to understand when he couldn't do things because he was studying, and he would have to try to make time for them," Mrs. Palmer said. The main lesson to be learned from Palmer's experiences?

"It's never too late to get an education," Palmer said.

Palmer's wife agreed.

"Don't put it off," she said. "If you have the support, and it presents itself, go for it. You're not getting any younger, and it won't get easier. Taking the first step is the biggest leap."