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December 8, 2017
Phil Koch is related to a lot of college graduates.
His wife Anne is one. Their four children and all of their spouses have college degrees. And so do four of their grandchildren.
On Friday, Koch will join this family club when he gets his bachelor’s degree in history from UNC-Greensboro.
He’ll also earn another honor: The 82-year-old will become the oldest graduate in UNCG’s history.
“It’s never too late,” Koch said in a recent interview at his Greensboro home. “But that’s easier said than done.”
• • •
It’s not that Koch didn’t want a college degree. Something always seemed to get in the way.
He grew up in New York City as the oldest of three boys. His firefighter father and his mother, a nurse, stressed the importance of education.
Koch — pronounced “Kotch” like the former New York mayor — graduated from an all-boys Catholic high school and went to Fordham University to study business. But he ran out of money after a year and left school to work for an ambulance crew. He enrolled a year later at a Long Island college, where he earned an associate’s degree in horticulture in 1956.
After two years in the U.S. Army, Koch returned home, and he and Anne married. (They had met while he was working as an ambulance attendant. She was a nurse at the hospital where he had been assigned.)
After working in horticultural supply sales, Koch got on with Geigy Chemical Co., one of the forerunners of Syngenta, whose U.S. crop protection business is based in Greensboro.
Koch worked his way up through the ranks at Geigy and moved to Greensboro in 1975. He eventually became director of communications and led the company’s marketing and public relations efforts. He stayed with the company until he retired in 1994.
Every so often, Koch thought about going back to school.
“Sixty years ago, at one of my first jobs,” Koch recalled, “I called on some guy who was in his 70s. He used to say, ‘Your mind is a muscle like anything else. You gotta keep it working.'”
But when it came time to sign up for classes, Koch got word that the company wanted to transfer him yet again. By the time the family settled in Greensboro, Koch was too busy with work to pursue a degree.
When he first started at Geigy, Koch said a college education wasn’t a requirement to work there. By the time he became a manager, the company was no longer hiring people without college degrees. At one point, Koch said, someone working under him had a doctorate. Another had an MBA.
“Sometimes I’d think without the degree I had an advantage,” Koch said. “I used to be driven to say, well, I want to prove to these people they didn’t make a mistake hiring somebody without a degree.
“And I also wanted to prove that I’m as good as the next guy, if not better. So I had to work a little harder.”
Koch worked hard in retirement, too. He played golf twice a week. He worked out. He traveled. He read. He wrote and acted in plays at the Community Theatre of Greensboro and other local playhouses.
Shortly after Phil retired, Anne started taking classes at UNCG. It took her nine years but she graduated in 2006 at age 70 with degrees in both history and English. She also made Phi Beta Kappa, the nation’s top academic honor society.
“I was so proud of her and she was an inspiration,” Koch said. “Frankly my golf game wasn’t getting any better. I was getting more frustrated. There’s got to be more to life than hanging around with all these old guys.”
• • •
In 2012, Koch made up his mind to get his degree.
Koch decided to study history because he had always liked the subject. He chose UNCG because he felt welcomed there and because the university gave him full credit for the degree he earned five decades earlier.
Koch liked his UNCG classes, the professors and the research papers he had to write. His grades were good, and he got to know some of the students.
Sometimes his classmates called him “sir” because they thought he was a professor. One even wanted to use him as a primary source for a research assignment. (Koch chuckled at this memory. By his own calculation, Koch had been alive for about half of the period covered in one of his courses, “United States History since 1865.”)
Koch thought he’d get to engage in high-minded intellectual discussions with the other students. That didn’t happen. They were usually glued to their phones between classes.
But Koch said he gained new respect for the other UNCG students. He had seen his children and grandchildren struggle to get through college in four years. At UNCG, many of his classmates took five or six classes a semester while making long commutes and working part-time jobs.
“It’s a chore,” Koch said. “I don’t know how they get it done.”
The first three semesters were good. But in the spring of 2014, a German class was giving him an ulcer. Other minor ailments were nagging him, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to take the rest of the foreign language classes he needed for his degree.
So at age 79 Koch dropped out.
But he missed school.
“I found out that the journey was more valuable than the goal,” Koch said. “I enjoyed the classes and the stimulation and the organization it put in my life … but they were more important than even getting a degree.”
Anne pushed him to go back, even if that meant signing up for one or two classes a semester instead of the three he had been taking.
“He was too hard on himself,” she said.
Koch stewed about it for a while before deciding to return to school in the fall of 2015.
“I was frustrated about not having achieved the goal that I had set for myself,” Koch said. “I hated being thought of as a quitter.”
Koch convinced UNCG to waive the language requirement. (The university made him take German history and German literature classes instead. He said he loved them both.) He went back to school in the fall of 2015. Five semesters later, he’s done.
Koch isn’t planning to go to Friday’s commencement ceremony at the Greensboro Coliseum. Too many people. Too impersonal.
The history department holds a smaller ceremony for its graduates just once a year, in May. Koch said he thinks he’ll attend that event — “if I’m around and available. We have two grandchildren graduating next May.”
Story by John Newsom
Photography by Joseph Rodriguez/News & Record