Words from a first-generation college student hit home for guests and graduates at Tennessee Tech University’s commencement ceremony Saturday, as Beecher Hunter charged TTU’s newest grads to find their success in life by practicing love and kindness.
TTU alumnus Hunter was the first in his family to attend and graduate college. His father, Waymon, was a barber, and his mother, Rebecca, worked in the home until Hunter was a junior in high school.
At that point, Hunter said, “My mother announced to the family that she would try to find a public job to help her three sons get a college education. She went to work as a dishwasher in a restaurant in downtown Cookeville for a couple of years, and then found a job with Wilson Sporting Goods, from which she retired.”
Hunter received his bachelor’s degree in English at TTU in 1961.
More than 20 years after his graduation, Hunter ran into a banker friend at lunch, who said, “I’m going to break a promise to your mother, because there is something you ought to know. There were about three times while you were in college that your mother came to the bank and asked to borrow money. When I asked her why she needed it, she said, ‘Beecher needs a little help in school.’ She always paid those loans off on time.”
“When I graduated from Tech in 1961, I didn’t have the money to buy a ring. I wanted one, very badly, but I just couldn’t afford it,” Hunter said. “On Christmas Day in 1963, while my wife, Lola, and I were visiting with my parents, under the tree was a small gift, beautifully wrapped. When I opened it, there was my Tennessee Tech ring. My mother had saved the money to buy what she knew I wanted.
“I wear this ring every day as a symbol of my love for this university. But I also wear it proudly as an emblem of the sacrificial love of my mother and her determination to see her sons get a college education that she was never able to have.”
Hunter is now president of Life Care Centers of America, the nation’s third largest provider of long-term health care that operates 225 skilled nursing facilities in 28 states.
“First-generation college students go on to have an amazing impact on their families and communities and are often times outspoken advocates for college education,” said TTU President Phil Oldham, who invited Hunter to deliver the commencement address.
During the ceremony, Oldham also recognized the influence of earlier first-generation TTU alums Josephine and Argyle McDonald. Nearly a dozen of their family members have gone on to earn 17 degrees from TTU. The latest McDonald family graduate, Mara McDonald, received her degree at Saturday’s commencement.
Nearly 800 degrees were awarded in 38 areas of undergraduate study and 19 graduate fields, building TTU’s alumni family to more than 74,000.