No current Purdue student has been able to sit and count his achievements like one student counts his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
However, Jerry V. Cole II, local businessman and life insurance salesman, can. At age 88, Cole holds the title of Purdue’s oldest undergraduate student. Cole’s story, though, begins at age 17 when he quit high school to serve his country in World War II.
“Nobody ever thinks of that ... (but) everybody quit school,” said Faye Cole, Jerry’s wife of 30 years. “If you were a good American you quit school and signed up.”
Jerry did a stint in the United States Navy and then, at age 18, enlisted in the Marine Corps; it was then that he finally got his GED. Despite never graduating from college, he went on to an extremely successful career, traveling across the world as a salesman for Lafayette Life Insurance that lasted 33 years. This career included many awards and honors, including
becoming the company’s vice president and obtaining the designation of Chartered Life Underwriter, the equivalent of five years of college. Jerry also qualified 15 times for Million Dollar Round Table, the highest honor available for those in the insurance business – more than enough to become a lifetime member of the association. All the while, however, he has always been bothered by the fact that he never went to college and received a degree.
Today, Jerry says he has slowed down his pace some; he still represents the Lafayette Life Insurance agency from a local office and estimates he has 500 clients on the books. His certificates and plaques take up whole walls of his Main Street office; however, it is one lone certificate sitting on a shelf in the corner that has spurred Jerry on for years. That particular certificate is for a course he completed at the University in 1978.
Jerry says that it always has bothered him greatly that he never went to and finished college, especially after finding the certificate again.
“When we moved (houses about five years ago), that thing showed up,” Jerry said.
“He was afraid he was going to die and lose those three credits,” laughed Faye.
Starting college at the age of 83 is a feat Jerry managed by being permitted to attend classes at Subaru of Indiana Automotive Inc. in Lafayette with Subaru employees. There, he takes all of the normal classes required by the University for his major in Organizational Leadership and Supervision and, unlike most Purdue students, doesn’t have to worry about walking between classes or finding a place to park.
Obviously in love with learning, Jerry said he really enjoys all of his classes, especially his agricultural economics course.
“(Because of my age), all the professors think I know something,” laughed Jerry.
But getting used 18-year-old study buddies and coping with minor setbacks – such as learning the hard way to type his papers instead of writing them by hand – are all worth it to Jerry. Even being forced to take a semester off due to a sudden episode of cardiac arrest last October wasn’t enough to stop him from trying to achieve his goal.
“He just wants a degree. And he’ll get it when he’s 90 or 91,” said Faye. “That’s the goal.”
Jerry reached the halfway mark to his bachelor’s degree in May of last year when he accepted his associates diploma and, by his estimate, he only has 13 classes left to go.
Through it all, Jerry has been a huge proponent of the value of an education and encourages and persuades anyone to continue theirs as far as they are able. He has even been looking into setting up funding for other non-traditional students, such as those also juggling work and families.
“Do it now... don’t wait until you get as old as I am ... (but) if I can do it, so can (you).”
He doesn’t even see his wife, who never went to college either, as an exception to this advice.
“I’d love for her to go ... I’ll help.” said Jerry.