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Son accepts late father's degree from UW

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LARAMIE, Wyo. (AP) — Bill Smith Jr. couldn't bring himself to try on his father's graduation cap and gown until just before the University of Wyoming commencement, three days after his father unexpectedly died.

He checked his reflection and straightened the cap, which was slightly loose. He wondered how it would have fit his father, who never could find large-enough hats. He pictured the mortarboard over his father's unruly head of gray hair.

That's the way it should have been.

Bill Smith Sr. spent seven years working toward a bachelor's degree in computer science from UW. He died of a suspected heart attack May 8, just days after final exams. He was 62.

"He's earned this. He's supposed to graduate. He's going to graduate," Bill Jr. said he thought to himself. Still, it didn't feel right to wear what his father had earned.

Looking in the mirror, he wondered how to acknowledge that this was his father's cap and gown, his father's accomplishment. But it was time to go.

Just as Bill Jr. and the family and friends were about to leave the house, he ran back upstairs.

He reappeared wearing a freshly printed photograph of his father hung around his neck by a blue ribbon - the only string he could find.

The others quickly understood. The effort signaled to everybody that Bill Smith Sr. had accomplished his goal.

The group began walking toward the nearby campus. It didn't take long for Libby Smith to pause. She looked around, thinking someone had been left behind at the house. It dawned on her that she was thinking about her husband, Bill Sr.

They walked on, as Bill Jr. gripped his father's slightly loose cap, the photo of Bill Sr. flapping up at his shoulder in the breeze.

Faculty members who had known Bill Sr. patted his son's shoulder as the family and friends walked to their places for the ceremony.

The computer science department head told the crowd gathered for the graduating class of 2013 that Bill Sr. came to UW after 40 years working in the information technology industry. He became a tutor, then ran the tutoring program and even covered lectures in some introductory courses, James Caldwell said.

The audience gave a standing ovation.

Bill Sr. taught community college courses. He taught himself about photography and Egyptology and excelled in both. He wrote for a weekly newspaper. He ran for political office and served in the Wheatland Volunteer Fire Department. He did it all without a bachelor's degree.

Perhaps the most valuable lesson Bill Sr. taught his son was that he could be whatever he wanted to be, Bill Jr. said in his father's eulogy.

Bill Sr.'s motto? "If you can do it, I can do it. I just need to figure out how you did it."

Learning is a lifelong endeavor, he told his children. It's not something that stops because you graduate or land a certain job.

It wasn't just a lesson he repeated. He lived it.

Bill Sr. was a self-educated computer programmer who began teaching in community college classrooms before earning his associate degree in 1989. He didn't stop teaching when he went home.

"It's impossible to grow up with my dad without learning how to be a programmer," Bill Jr. said.

He once hacked his father's work computer while in elementary school, much to Bill Sr.'s delight, and now works as a computer programmer. Bill Jr. has yet to add software engineering to his collection of degrees. His father taught him programming, he said.

When the family moved from Maryland to Wyoming in 1989, Bill Sr. decided to become a photographer and paid bills by shooting portraits and events.

"Of course, I learned a great deal about photography in the process because learning was never a private endeavor for him," said Bill Jr., who was about 13 at the time. "He'd get excited, he'd share things."

Bill Sr. took photos and wrote for the Platte County Record Times in Wheatland and once ran for mayor of that city. But he was more interested in expressing his opinions than calculating the political consequences, Bill Jr. said. He lost.

He also became a volunteer firefighter, then the assistant chief after a year of earning more certifications than anyone on the crew. His children learned about firefighting too.

Libby Smith described her husband's teaching method as Socratic. He found out what people already knew, then became absorbed in activities in which to expand their learning.

For example, a question from one of the kids once inspired a day spent building and launching model rockets.

Bill Sr. taught his son algebra in grade school. His daughter, Jennifer Woolsey, said she would never have passed algebra class if not for her father's patient teaching style. He related the subject to her main interest, horses.

He didn't hesitate to take his children out of school to give them tours of the Smithsonian museums.

He always said he'd earn his bachelor's degree but put it off for years. After all, he worked and was unwilling to lose time enjoying life with his family. But he always learned.

Bill Sr.'s initial motivation for finally earning his bachelor's degree was the need for programmers to have that credential these days. But he would have been happy being a student forever, his family said.

He'd taken college classes off and on for all his adult life. His wife said she didn't mind if he stayed in school forever, if he actually earned a degree.

They made a deal: He'd complete his bachelor's degree and walk at commencement if she earned a doctoral degree. So he enrolled as a senior at UW seven years ago.

Libby has a year left on her end of the bargain. She also took a higher-paying nursing job in California and later Kentucky so Bill Sr. could go to school in Laramie. He'd planned to join her in Kentucky this summer. At the time of his death, they were discussing their options, such as him selling the house and moving to Kentucky, going to graduate school in Laramie or Kentucky, and the two of them eventually retiring in Laramie and him going to school forever.

He died the day Libby and Bill Jr. arrived from Bill Jr.'s home in Kentucky to celebrate Bill Sr.'s accomplishment. By the time they returned home, he was dead.

Libby had watched her son and daughter walk across the same commencement stage before. Bill Jr. had also graduated with a law degree in California. Each time, Bill Sr. had sat at her side.

It should have been the other way around this time.

Even in the sorrow, the moment was one of the proudest of her life, she said.

Her daughter held her hand while Bill Jr. was presented with his father's degree. Woolsey had just whispered they should stand when the time came. Libby admired her children's grace.

"I knew my kids were all grown up," Libby said.

Bill Sr. hadn't wanted to walk in his graduation ceremony. Certificates, degree letters and commencement meant little to him. It was the gained knowledge that mattered.

His family felt differently.

"To me, it was a big deal because he had told his children and his grandchildren, 'Someday I'm going to do this,'" Libby said. "I said, 'That's what you're doing. You're letting them know if you have a goal, then you can complete it.'"

When Bill Jr. put on a UW cap and gown of his own 15 years ago, his father raised his glass and presented a toast. "I am so proud of you!" he said.

Bill Sr. wasn't a man given to sentimental outbursts, Bill Jr. said. Those six words packed meaning.

Last month, Bill Jr. couldn't tell his father how proud he was of him. But he could — and did — show the world what his father had accomplished.

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Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, http://www.trib.com

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