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Bethel Park man to receive degree from Pitt he earned 64 years ago

| Saturday, April 19, 2014, 6:27 p.m.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
John C. Downes of Bethel Park sits with his wife JoAnne on Friday April 18, 2014. Mr. Downes, 90, attended the University of Pittsburgh on the GI bill from 1946 through 1950, but never got his degree. 64 years after he finished college, he’ll be marching at Pitt’s commencement on Sunday.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
John C. Downes of Bethel Park is helped with his cap and gown by his daughters Denise Edgar (left) and Dianne Lynch (right) with his wife JoAnne watches on Friday April 18, 2014. Mr. Downes, 90, attended the University of Pittsburgh on the GI bill from 1946 through 1950, but never got his degree. 64 years after he finished college, he’ll be marching at Pitt’s commencement on Sunday.

John C. Downs was among the first wave of World War II vets to tap the GI Bill when he enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh in 1946.

Now 90, the Bethel Park man will collect a degree in history at Pitt commencement ceremonies on April 27 — 64 years after he earned it.

The tall, slim grandfather of 21, who sports a shock of wavy, white hair, said he always thought he should have received a degree. After all, he attended classes at Pitt for four years and felt certain he had completed his course requirements.

Somehow, a letter from the university advising him he was eligible to graduate in 1950 went unnoticed.

“I quite often thought, ‘John, I think you earned your degree,' but I never decided to find out whether I did,” he said.

Then life intervened.

He went to work, met and married JoAnne DuScheid, and they had five daughters. He held a variety of sales jobs before retiring, but always maintained a keen interest in history.

As Downs' 90th birthday approached this spring, daughters Dianne Lynch and Denise Edgar began sorting through his memorabilia to assemble a scrapbook for the big day. Lynch said that's when they discovered their father's college transcripts.

“If there is a moral to this story, it's keep your stuff. I think Dad kept more of his things than Mom did,” Lynch said.

“We got in touch with one of Pitt's vice chancellors. He looked over the transcripts and said Dad had what it took to graduate in 1950. Since then, Pitt has been just unbelievable,” she said.

“I am delighted that the academic record of John Downs was brought to my attention and that it meets the requirements for a Pitt bachelor of arts degree in history. I wish him heartfelt congratulations on graduating from the Dietrich School,” said N. John Cooper, dean of Pitt's Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences.

Downs framed a letter from Cooper stating that Pitt would be honored to award him his degree with the Class of 2014.

Last week, university officials honored Downs with a special luncheon at the University Club. They presented him with a basket of Pitt memorabilia and gave him an early peek at his diploma.

“They told me I'd be the first graduate of the Class of 2014,” he said, as his wife and daughters helped him try on his cap and gown.

For Downs, who grew up in Wilkinsburg and graduated from Central Catholic High School in Oakland, Pitt seemed a dream beyond reach when his father died when he was 16. After high school, he was drafted and ended up in the Army Air Corps as a radar mechanic. He served in the Pacific during World War II and in occupied Japan.

Downs came back to Pittsburgh and landed a job in a small manufacturing plant in Homewood with a longtime friend, Jim Kelly. When Kelly, a fellow vet, suggested they tap the GI bill to try college life, Downs was more than ready.

“I had dreams of college, but I never thought I'd get to go. The GI bill helped millions of people. It was a good thing,” Downs said.

Pitt officials gave their oldest undergraduate enough tickets to accommodate his children and grandchildren for the commencement ceremony. Nearly three dozen of them will be at Petersen Events Center on April 27 to see him march across the stage in cap and gown, festooned with honor cords.

“My son, who is a freshman at Pitt, is planning to wear Dad's cap and gown when he graduates,” Lynch said.

Debra Erdley is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com.

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