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The graduate: At 81, he’s getting his degree

At 81, John Voelpel is this semester's oldest

At 81, John Voelpel is this semester's oldest graduate to cross the University of South Florida commencement stage. Credit: University of South Florida

TAMPA, Fla.

— John Voelpel took his first University of South Florida class, a course on environmental ethics, for no credit in 2002. He liked it, so he stuck around. For 15 years.

Sometimes the 20-somethings in his classes looked at him askance. After all, here he was with his white hair and prosthetic leg, a 60-something, then a 70-something, then an 80-something slowly making his way toward a PhD in philosophy.

At 81, John Voelpel will be this semester’s oldest graduate to cross the commencement stage at USF. His professor of a decade, Martin Schönfeld, will be the one to hood him.

“My only complaint about him is that he’s too humble,” Schönfeld said.

He said Voelpel had wanted to keep tinkering with his dissertation.

“I was like, ‘No, no, no,’ ” Schönfeld said. “ ‘This thing is done. It’s already real good. Go defend it.’ ”

In casual conversation, Voelpel exclaims with glee over USF’s collection of academic journals, defends Plato’s relevance and drops quotes about the humility-inducing properties of nature.

He rattles off his personal history: Born in 1936 in Illinois. Attended his state university for chemical engineering. Army. Private sector. Then law school in the early 1970s. Somewhere in there he’d gotten into camping with his Boy Scout son, so environmental law it was.

It turned out to be a prescient move as environmental regulations began ramping up. He helped corporations abide by the new rules. But sometimes he ended up going against the environment. At the end of the 1970s, his clients had him battle a movement to remove trisodium phosphate from cleansing agents.

“That’s the kind of thing that I guess I have some qualms about,” he said. “We didn’t win, thank goodness.”

When his career wound down after three decades, he had moved to Florida and found himself with time to ponder the ethical questions his job had sparked.

“I figured I’d go look for answers,” he said.

That’s when he started at USF. But then, in 2006, a drunken driver slammed into his car, nearly killing him and his wife. He remembers hearing metal saws rip through his Toyota.

Voelpel lost his right foot, then his knee. School slowed down for a bit, but he kept going.

Witnessing that drive made Schön feld get philosophical.

“In philosophy you do aspire to wisdom, not only theoretically but also as part of an existential practice,” the professor said. “Seeing him deal with these fears and the anxiety and this general trauma, including one of amputation, with such grace and poise and a sense of gratitude — that’s pretty awesome.”

In the USF graduate program, Voelpel helped his professor study animal consciousness, burrowing into the library and emerging with arcane tidbits.

He particularly liked sharing classes with young people.

“It’s not all bad,” he said. “They’ve got good questions.”

Voelpel ultimately wrote a doctoral dissertation on the ethics of climate change with a moral imperative toward the generations to come. How people treat the environment today spills over, he said, to their children and their children’s children.

He wants to keep researching, maybe teaching. He figures he’s still got time — his father died at 97, reading the paper.

He’s enrolled in another noncredit philosophy class this summer, since seniors can audit courses for free.

He still has questions.

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