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53 Years Later, Local Finishes College Career

The journey brought him back to his railroading roots

Published in the October 2022 Issue Published online: Oct 05, 2022 Senior Living
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BY KYLE PFANNENSTIEL

THOMAS GRIGGS STARTED COLLEGE IN FALL 1969. Then, life happened.

He left after one year at what was then Rick’s College, now Brigham Young University-Idaho, to go on a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He got married. Had kids. Griggs returned and soon withdrew to focus on putting food on the table. By his early adult years, Griggs was in the workforce, managing a heating and air conditioning warehouse in East Idaho and selling computer supplies in Twin Falls.

In 1989, seeking a career change, Griggs took another run at higher education, earning 67 credit hours in nuclear engineering at University of Idaho.

But life threw another curveball his way. Griggs’ prospective employer announced a hiring freeze.

By then, he had taken courses over two decades and spent thousands of dollars — earning enough credits for a degree, if the credits lined up perfectly. But it wasn’t working out.

Having grown up in the railroad hub of Pocatello, Griggs set his sights on joining the railroad industry, where both his father and grandfather worked.

The career, which included stints as a railroad conductor and engineer, reaffirmed his passion for the tracks and the intricate machines that chug along them.

After Griggs retired from railroading in 2016, his wife, Linda, posed the question.

“When are you going to finish your degree?”

He balked at first.

“There’s too much left,” Griggs recalls saying.

But after crunching the numbers, Griggs discovered he could finish bachelor’s degrees at both BYU-I and U of I within a few years. And he could do it for cheap — using the state of Idaho’s discount that lets Idahoans age 60 and up take courses for $5 per credit hour, plus fees. Preparing to crack open textbooks again, Griggs walked into Debbie Caudle’s office in 2018. He brought the U of I Idaho Falls student services coordinator a diet cream vanilla Coca-Cola and asked for her help to finish school. Caudle and a BYU-I advisor figured out which courses would transfer between colleges. Soon, Griggs was registered for classes at U of I and BYU-I.

School had changed a lot from his first attempts. Gone were the days of chalkboard lectures and pen-and-paper assignments. In were the days of PowerPoints, widespread computer ownership and online classes.

He swapped his flip-phone for a smartphone to use dual-factor authentication apps for class. Student Services helped Griggs turn in work online. Professors let him submit some physical assignments.

His passion for the railroad also showed in full force. Griggs pursued an ambitious senior project for his industrial technology major — to restore a decommissioned Union Pacific railroad maintenance car that hadn’t operated 20 years.

Griggs saw the project through, decorating his 65-page paper with photos and journal entries chronicling the car’s journey from a rusted “tin can,” as he puts it, to a reliable cruiser that traverses remote stretches of railroad tracks. The bright yellow car — only large enough for two people — caught the eye of Caudle, who hosts a car show each year. When Griggs showed it there in 2021, he won spectator’s choice.

“He makes me smile,” Caudle said. “And boy, I’ll tell ya, he could’ve just retired and not even worried about going back to school. But he closed the loop, and I am so proud of him.”

In May, Griggs, 71, turned his gold tassel, earning a Bachelor of Science from U of I, one year after completing a bachelor’s in general studies from BYU-I. The degrees are stitched together with classes across decades at several universities.

In part, he earned his degrees to prove to his grandkids that going on to higher education is an important goal—one to which he can even lay claim. But it was also about grit, he said.

“You don’t have to be young to do it,” Griggs said. “I can now say, ‘Yes, I did.’ But it only took me 53 years to do it.”

“It’s never too late to accomplish a goal,” he said. 

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