In September, Hugh D. Williams, the oldest graduate in the history of Haas School of Business at 101 years old, held his diploma for the first time.
After more than 70 years, he received his bachelor of science in business administration, joining many other members of his family, including his eldest granddaughter, as a UC Berkeley graduate. He transferred to UC Berkeley from Riverside City College in 1937 in his junior year. With only a few courses remaining on his schedule, he left UC Berkeley to help the World War II effort and raise his family.
That changed when Barbara Felkins, assistant director of academic affairs at Haas, heard about his situation from his daughter, Barbara Larsen, who Felkins knew from her days in the Berkeley High School marching band. After examining records of Williams’ classes from more than 70 years ago, she determined he had in fact fulfilled the requirements for his major in what was then called the Berkeley College of Commerce.
“We’re happy to count him and his family among our Berkeley-Haas family,” said Tenny Frost, executive director of alumni relations and development at Haas, in an email.
Due to stomach ulcers, Williams was unable to serve in the military, so he took a job in a machine shop developing parts for Howitzer machine guns. While at UC Berkeley, he met his late wife, fellow student Ardell Rademacher, and they had their first child. He put his degree on hold and stayed in Berkeley to raise their two children, Douglas, who became an electrical engineer, and Barbara, a special education teacher who would later graduate from UC Berkeley.
Williams settled into his job as a shop steward — a mediator between workers and management — utilizing the perspective he developed from his business classes. For Williams, who enjoyed working with his hands and tinkering with machinery, the degree was less important than his job.
“I didn’t see any reason for (going back), because I wasn’t interested in business,” Williams said. “I was actually going back to the machine shop and doing what I learned to like.”
In recent years, he began contemplating what it would mean for him to complete his degree. Williams had previously been advised by UC Berkeley staff that he could petition for his degree and likely get it, but said he made a “big mistake” not acting sooner.
“It was kinda neat that he was able to finally get his degree,” Larsen said. “A lot of us will make decisions we really didn’t like (in college). How often does someone get the chance to change that?”
Felkins said the opportunity to help potential UC Berkeley alums like Williams is why she loves what she does at Haas.
Williams once felt that wearing his Berkeley hat was like “an apology,” to those who asked, admitting,“I almost graduated.” Now, he beams with pride sporting his cap at the Cupertino retirement community where he lives.
“I feel honored,” Williams said. “Now when I talk to people, I can say, ‘I’m a Cal graduate.’ ”