June 12, 2013

Lasting memories for college grad


---- — PLATTSBURGH — George Barber’s pride for the day he graduated from college has not diminished in six decades.

Barber, now 85, is celebrating the 60th anniversary of his graduation from Champlain College on June 14, 1953, the second of only two classes to complete their bachelor’s studies at the short-lived facility.

He took advantage of the free tuition offered to veterans following World War II.

“At that time, they were giving veterans a chance to go to college, if they didn’t get booted out (once enrolled),” Barber said from the home where he has lived since 1960 and where he and his wife, Elizabeth, raised their six children.

“They’d give a random test once every semester, maybe more, and if you didn’t do well, you were kicked out. Once you knew what was happening (with the importance of the random testing), you paid all the more attention to your studies.”

Champlain College opened on Sept. 23, 1946, as a two-year transfer college on U.S. Oval, the former site of the Plattsburgh Barracks. About 1,800 students were enrolled during the school’s first semester, and 300 students graduated during the first commencement in 1950.

In that same year, the college became one of two liberal-arts colleges to expand to a four-year program under the newly created State University of New York system.

Under the GI Bill and the Associated Colleges of Upper New York, veterans were assured that no student would be excluded because of their race, sex or economic condition.

The overwhelming majority of Champlain College students were veterans, but several men and women from the local community also attended.

For Barber, the opportunity was a dream come true.

“I joined the Army in the last semester of high school (in April 1946),” he said, describing how he had left high school after a verbal disagreement with a gym teacher and decided on the spot to leave school and enlist.

“I finished basic training and came home (to Schenectady) a few days before graduation. I was the only private in the Regular Army in uniform at my graduation.”

Barber was then ordered to Korea in June 1946. Although hostilities with the Japanese had ended many months earlier, Barber still remembers with clarity coming off the transport ship and nearly “rubbing elbows” with Japanese soldiers as they boarded an outgoing ship en route to their homeland.

His stay in Korea was short-lived, however. He had enlisted for two years, but by the end of 1946, doctors discovered that he had tuberculosis, and he was sent home to spend the next nine months in a Denver hospital.

He was later transferred to Sunmount Hospital in Tupper Lake before finally being discharged and returning to Schenectady.

“A father of one of my friends saw me with my new car (that he had purchased with money he had saved during his enlistment), and he told me I better get in my car and drive up to Plattsburgh and enroll in class,” he said of the final link that would bring him to Champlain College.

“I respected what he had to say,” he said. “I drove up on Friday, found the administration office, and they told me to be here Monday morning.”

During his first year at Champlain, he lived in a single dorm room on campus because of his recent bout with tuberculosis. After returning from summer vacation in Schenectady for his second year, he learned that the room had not been saved for him, and he had to scramble to find a place to live.

“I looked around and found the greatest house in Plattsburgh,” he said of the home he would eventually stay in for the remainder of his college days. That house is across the road from where he finally settled down with his wife and raised his family.

The daughter of the family who owned the house where he stayed, Peg McDowell, would eventually become a lifelong friend and would become “like a grandmother” to Barber’s children.

After graduating from Champlain, which was at that time slated to close in favor of building the new Plattsburgh Air Force Base, Barber met his wife-to-be while they both took an adult art course at Plattsburgh High School. Elizabeth Mulligan had come to Plattsburgh from Glasgow, Scotland.

While in college, Barber had worked part-time for a local surveyor. He would balance that experience with his educational training to put together a successful career as an independent surveyor and construction worker.

He was also very outspoken during his day and would challenge the Plattsburgh political leaders when he felt they were not doing as well as they should. He was also a regular contributor to the Letters to the Editor page of the Press-Republican.

It was a lifetime ago when Barber accepted his diploma from Champlain College with pride, but it has been a lifetime filled with memories and accomplishments.

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