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Vet, 75, proud to be ND-enrolled

Justin Tardiff | Friday, November 18, 2005

When Ralph “Lefty” Guillette tells people he’s a student at Notre Dame, he usually gets the once-over and a response along the lines of “Yeah, right.”

But Guillette can’t blame them. After all, he is 75 years old.

“I show them my student I.D. and say, ‘Eat your heart out – I’m a student,'” he said.

In mid-July 2005, Guillette was accepted to take one class at Notre Dame during the fall semester. So on Aug. 15, he loaded five suitcases and seven boxes into his black Chrysler, said good-bye to his wife and traveled 868 miles until he was beneath the Dome.

Guillette is currently enrolled in “War, Law and Ethics” – a theology course that fulfills a second theology credit and explores the ethical and legal considerations related to war.

He gets tears in his eyes when he talks about Notre Dame. He is considered the oldest undergraduate to ever walk Notre Dame’s campus. And he might be the proudest, too.

“I can’t believe I’m here,” Guillette said. “I sit in my class and it’s like, pinch me. Am I really awake? I find myself looking for flaws. I’ve been to Korea, Vietnam, wounded three times, but to sit here and say, I’m a student, I just can’t believe it.”

Guillette pauses, his eyes turn glassy. He can’t finish.

So how did this former Marine gunnery sergeant come to take a class at one of the most prestigious schools in the nation? Persistence, ambition and some string-pulling with the higher-ups, he said.

“In March of last year, I realized I was going to be in South Bend for the Michigan State game and the Southern California game, so I thought, why don’t I just go to Notre Dame for the semester? So I made some phone calls, first to [Executive Director of the Alumni Association] Chuck Lennon, who referred me to [Director of Admissions] Dan Saracino, who referred me to [Associate Director of Admissions) Michael Gantt,” he said.

After two months, Gantt called Guillette and told him the University would not be able to accept him as a full-time student. Gantt suggested he get in touch with Arts and Letters Associate Director Ava Preacher, who could get him into one class for the fall semester.

“[Preacher] had a class she thought would be appropriate for me,” Guillette said. “She said she could see what she could do. In mid-July, I was accepted into the class. So I really had to hustle to buy my computer, make travel arrangements and pack my car up.”

Despite the age difference, Guillette’s reaction wasn’t unlike that of most Notre Dame hopefuls who receive the coveted acceptance letters.

“I bawled my head off. I yelled and screamed. I couldn’t catch my breath. My wife thought I was having a heart attack,” he said.

Guillette served in both the Korean and Vietnam wars. In 1968, after being wounded by shrapnel during combat in Vietnam, he committed himself to a list of 32 life goals – scribbled in pencil on the back of a phone number list.

“The naval nurse came up to me and asked ‘What are your plans after the war?’ I was 36 years old, and had no idea,” he said. “So that night I decided to make a list of what I wanted to do, called ‘Goals and Objectives and Places I Want to Visit.’ I kept writing the goals for two days, and I believed that if I could do them all then I would be successful.”

Attending Notre Dame was on that list – and 37 years later Guillette is living his dream.

“I enjoy life twice as much as anyone alive my age and I love this country,” he said. “We’re not here to crawl into a corner and watch television. Have dreams. Set goals.”

There are still 13 goals left on his list, and Guillette continues to check them off as he ages, though he has never shown the list to anyone.

Guillette estimates it is costing him about $20,000 in total for his class, lodging and meals. He lives alone in an apartment off of Bendix Road, and calls his wife – who stayed behind in Vermont – twice a day.

“I’ve never been one to be lonesome, I’ve been alone so much in my lifetime,” Guillette said. “But I am lonesome for my wife. But at least I love television – the History Channel, the Discovery channel.”

Guillette has nearly perfect attendance in his War, Law and Ethics class, but readily admits that it’s not easy.

“I have no clue what my grade is,” he said. “I’ll be happy with a B. We just took an exam, I’m hoping just to pass it. When you’re my age, you don’t retain half as much as what you read.”

His professor, Margaret Pfeil, teaches the class with military science professor Lt. Kelly Jordan. The class explores the ethical considerations of a just war.

“I was surprised when I found out he was going to be in my class, but I am so excited for him,” Pfeil said. “He clearly appreciates it. Because of his experience in combat, he has added a rich dimension to our discussion.”

Guillette plans to go home for Thanksgiving, and he’s considering applying to take another class at Notre Dame during the spring semester. He pounds his fists in the air when he talks about being a student at the University.

“If you want it bad enough,” he said, “don’t take no for an answer. Have a reason for everything you do.”