First Baylor Night School Graduate Looks Back At Dream Fulfilled

  • News Photo 384
    George Lassetter, Baylor first night school graduate.
  • News Photo 449
    After five years of attending school without a single semester?s break, George Lassetter became Baylor's first night school graduate on May 28, 1954.
Aug. 14, 2002

by Randy Fiedler

When George Lassetter walked the stage of Waco Hall to receive his Baylor diploma in 1954, he was given special recognition for being the first person ever to graduate from the University with credits earned entirely through night classes. A married man with two children, Lassetter held down a full time job, and attending night classes was his only way to obtain a degree. Through determination and sacrifice, the high school dropout and World War II veteran realized his lifelong dream of a college education.

George Brink Lassetter's earliest years were not necessarily those of a man destined for higher education. The oldest son of a tenant farmer and his wife, Lassetter was born on May 24, 1922, into a family that would eventually include eight children. Lassetter's father made his living selling the few crops he could raise on farmland he rented in Ross, Texas, just north of Waco.

As soon as he was old enough, Lassetter helped his father on the farm. That meant missing a lot of school, which Lassetter regretted because he loved to learn.

"I had to stay out of school to plow and plant cotton," he said. "I did what I could to carry on, and would maybe go to school one day a week, but the fact was that most of the time I couldn't go."

Lassetter eventually entered junior high school in West, Texas, but when the boy was 13 his father suffered back injuries that would prevent him from doing physical work the rest of his life. Lassetter was forced to drop out of school almost entirely to work the farm with an older sister. A year later, he gave up attending school altogether to raise money for the family.

A QUARTER FOR 18 HOURS WORK

"I had to stay out of school a year when I was 14, working at Fairway Grocery on the square in Waco," Lassetter said. "All the kids from Ross would come in and ask why I wasn't in school. It was embarrassing, but I just had to work. My boss was empathetic. He would pay me 25 cents for an 18-hour day, and I spent it all on groceries. That took it all. I couldn't complain, because the family had to eat."

Eventually Lassetter and his family moved from the farm in Ross into a house in Waco, and he was able to enroll in Waco High School. But his heavy work schedule prevented him from attending full time, and he eventually dropped out.

The United States entered World War II in December 1941, and within a year Lassetter joined the service.

"I was going to be drafted into the Army, but instead I volunteered for the Air Force in October 1942 so I could stay home in Waco at Blackland [Army Airfield]," he said.

Lassetter was stationed at Blackland for the next 30 months, working as an aircraft mechanic. When planes weren't flying he was allowed to work an outside job in the nearby town of McGregor.

"Every day we couldn't fly I worked at the Bluebonnet Ordnance Plant and made pretty good money," he said. "I was packing bombs in boxcars -- dangerous! We took a sledgehammer and put them in there. They said they didn't have a detonator in them and wouldn't explode, but I don't know. I was just young."

During his time at Blackland, Lassetter went to a party thrown by a friend and met a pretty young Bell Telephone Co. employee named Jocelyn May. The couple soon began dating and were married in October 1943. They had their first child -- a boy named Donnie -- two years later. Soon afterward, Lassetter was reassigned to Waco Army Airfield and then to an air base in Illinois before his discharge from the Air Force in February 1946.

GI BILL OPPORTUNITY

Back home in Waco as a civilian, Lassetter took an entry-level job as a file clerk with the local Veterans Administration office. Working out of quonset huts near Waco's VA Hospital, Lassetter and his colleagues helped returning veterans secure housing, on-the-job training and education.

As he watched the steady flow of veterans passing through the VA offices who were taking advantage of new legislation providing them with free college educations, Lassetter began thinking seriously about following their example.

"I always wanted an education, and I didn't have a chance when I was a youngster," he said. "I was determined I was going to do the best I could. I knew the GI Bill would help me -- it would pay my tuition, books and supplies."

So, after passing an equivalency exam to obtain his high school diploma, the 27-year-old Lassetter enrolled at Baylor University in June 1949 as a business major. Three months later, his second child -- a daughter named Linda -- was born.

The Baylor campus of 1949 was different in many ways from the one that existed before the war. The average age of students had risen as enrollment surged with a flood of returning veterans, and everything seemed in short supply, including professors, available classrooms and student housing. Baylor's night school program -- begun modestly some years before with classes in select subject areas -- was expanding rapidly in size and scope to accommodate the needs of veterans trying to go to school while working during the day.

Lassetter remembers that most of his night classes were filled to capacity, with the majority of the students male and female veterans. The few "day" students who attended seemed a bit out of place, since they might be 10 or more years younger than their classmates.

NO FRESHMAN BEANIE, THANKS

Night school students such as Lassetter were given exemptions from some Baylor traditions such as as wearing freshman beanies, attending chapel and taking physical education classes. But they were required to take and pass all normal core classes, including religion and English.

"The toughest course I had was English," Lassetter remembered. "We studied composition, grammar and literature at the same time, and the professor -- I can't remember her name -- required us to go to the library to work on papers. I said 'Ma'am, I don't know when I'm going to find time to go to the library. I work eight hours a day and I go to school every night.' She told me, 'You're just going to have to try and find time.' So, I ended up taking annual leave time from work during the day to go to the library. That professor was nice, but she was tough, and she couldn't give us a break. It was the hardest course I ever took."

Lassetter found some classes especially difficult due to his gaps in schooling.

"I took a class in trigonometry, and on the first day the professor told us to open our books to page 81," Lassetter said. "I asked him what happened to the first 80 pages, and he said we were supposed to know that already. I had a friend -- a brain -- who helped me on the first 80 pages and gave me something basic to go on, but it was tough."

PACKARD PHYSICS

Another challenging class was one of Lassetter's favorites -- physics with a young professor named Robert Packard.

"Physics was tough, but Packard was brilliant," Lassetter said. "You know what he taught me? How to multiply a nine-digit number by a nine-digit number in 15 seconds. He had us try that almost every time we went to class."

Lassetter found that veterans were sometimes able to get around strict rules governing conduct in the classroom. For example, many veterans had taken up smoking while in the service, but smoking was prohibited in all Baylor buildings. Lassetter, who smoked a pipe at the time, remembers a night economics class taught by Dr. Billy Hinton where that prohibition went out the window.

"We would open the window, and the smoke would just billow out."

But breaking the rules didn't mean Lassetter was dissatisfied with Baylor. On the contrary, he looked foward to his classes -- especially those in business.

"I always sat on the front row -- I didn't want to be in the back with the kids," he said. "And I learned more. I didn't miss a thing. I was not an 'A' student -- I didn't have time to be an 'A' student -- but I made sure I got everything I could get."

During a normal semester, Lassetter would be enrolled in three classes. Each weekday after working eight hours at the VA, he would come home for a quick dinner, then head to Baylor. When classes let out at 10 p.m. he would head home to find his wife and two children already in bed.

"I'd come in at night and they'd all be asleep," he said. "I'd go in and kiss them, you know, and maybe have a little cereal. Then I'd study a little bit, go to bed and wake up the next morning to go to work."

GRADUATION DAY

Finally, on May 28, 1954 -- after five years of attending school without a single semester's break -- Lassetter received his B.B.A. degree, becoming the first person in his family to graduate from college. Among the people watching him that night were a few of his brothers and sisters as well as his proud mother. His father had died two years earlier.

Lassetter's degree earned him an immediate promotion to a management position at the Veterans Administration, but he was not finished with higher education. Incredibly, almost before the ink on his undergraduate diploma could dry, he was enrolled again at Baylor taking graduate-level classes at night. In 1959, five years after he began graduate study, he received a master's of science degree in economics.

In the years following his studies at Baylor, Lassetter rose through the ranks of the Waco Veterans Administration office. He discovered a talent for public speaking, and was sent by the VA to offices across the country to train employees. After gaining an early proficiency in computers, Lassetter helped set up computer systems for VA offices in Texas and other states.

After retiring in 1982, Lassetter and his wife took vacations to Hawaii, Europe and across America, visited their four grandchildren and spent more time at the vacation home Lassetter had built himself on nearby Lake Whitney.

Lassetter almost ended up at Baylor a third time. Soon after he retired, he told his wife one day that he was leaving for Baylor to enroll in law school.

"I had a good, active mind and I knew a lot of legal stuff about real estate," he said. "I didn't think I'd ever practice, but I just wanted a law degree. I got in my car, drove way down there, and a flash came to me. I said 'George, what are you doing? You've just retired and you want to get committed again for all of this time, can't go anywhere, no vacations? Do you really need a law degree?' Nope. I turned around and went home."

In 1991, Lassetter's wife, Jocelyn, died. Six years later, he met and married Helen Pack, and the couple live together in a beautiful Waco home that is visited often by family and friends. They are avid Baylor Bear football fans and share a love of travel. George is a deacon at Memorial Baptist Church, which he has attended the past 48 years.

Looking back on his life, Lassetter, 80, said despite the sacrifices he had to make, he has been blessed.

"I felt I was missing out a bit by not being able to participate in campus life at Baylor, but I also felt lucky to get to go, because I had no idea I'd ever get to college," he said. "I'm fortunate to have had good health. I just depend on the Lord to keep me going. I hope my life isn't near over, but I've enjoyed it, and hope to enjoy much more."

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