Short story for Universitas magazine, Saint Louis University, Summer 2005
55 Years After He Started His Master's Degree, Stanley Mills Is One Glad Grad
By Allison Babka
Photo by Kevin Lowder
Sometimes we get an unexpected nudge to fulfill a lifelong dream.
Stanley Mills certainly did; in fact, he received several.
The 84-year-old Mills, originally from Yonkers, N.Y., received his master’s degree in philosophy May 14 during Saint Louis University’s commencement exercises. What was amazing to his fellow graduates — and to SLU officials — was that Mills’ degree was more than 50 years in the making, and it might not have even happened had he not met new friend Carol Servino.
Mills began his master’s degree work at SLU in 1950, concentrating on St. Thomas Aquinas.
“I love to study and read a lot,” Mills said. “St. Thomas Aquinas was just an outstanding philosopher.”
He had completed all of the required course work and had chosen a thesis topic when he took a job with a large publishing company. The company soon transferred Mills to Chicago, and he was unable to complete his required thesis. After that, Mills taught in Washington, D.C., and was a social worker in Harlem and the Bronx. He was an inspector at New York’s Kennedy Airport until he retired in 1983.
Mills — who never married or had children — enjoyed retirement in Sun City, Ariz., but he still dreamed about his elusive master’s degree. A newspaper article about an 89-year-old former judge earning his master’s degree encouraged Mills to contact SLU.
“A few years ago, I sent that article to SLU and asked, ‘What are my chances of finishing my degree?’” Mills said. “Father Theodore Vitale (chairman of the philosophy department) said that I’d have to come in, write my paper and be interrogated by the faculty. I figured I could do it.”
Mills planned to finish his degree while staying with his brother, who lived in St. Louis. However, his brother died before he could finalize arrangements.
“I just dropped it at that point,” Mills said.
But that didn’t stop Mills from exploring philosophy or faith. He continued to attend lectures and classes, and he became an accomplished traveler. In November 2004, Mills went on a spiritual retreat in Oregon. That’s where Carol Servino came in.
“I was at the retreat to figure out what to do next with my life,” Servino said. “My husband and I just celebrated our 30th anniversary, and my sons graduated from college and married.”
Servino was paired with Mills, with whom she figured she’d have little in common. Soon, however, she realized that she was wrong.
“Each time we spoke, we discovered a new connection between us,” Servino said. “Stanley introduced himself as being from New York, and I was raised in New Jersey. He mentioned that he was Polish, and I’m Polish as well. He said he was thinking about getting a summer place in Irvine, Calif., and one of my sons just moved there.”
In a bookstore, Mills picked up a text about St. Thomas Aquinas and mentioned that he had been in a master’s degree program at SLU but had to drop out around 1953. Servino was speechless, as that was the year she was born.
“There were so many moments of providence, or ‘God moments,’” Servino said. “I had learned so much from Stanley that I had to talk to the retreat priest about this. I felt it was my duty to help Stan.”
With the priest’s encouragement and without Mills’ knowledge, Servino drafted a heartfelt letter to Dr. Steve Petersen, interim vice president for development and University relations, wondering if arrangements could be made for Mills to earn his master’s degree. Petersen, also moved by the story, then worked with the philosophy department and the Graduate School, which determined that if Mills could write an acceptable thesis, he could receive his degree.
“When Steve presented Carol’s letter, we said we’d see what we could do,” said Dr. Donald Brennan, dean of the Graduate School. “We don’t just give away degrees. But Stanley ended up doing a darn good job.”
Mills wrote a paper about Aquinas’ “Theory of the Human Moral Act,” the topic he had chosen 50 years ago. He even consulted his old notes to complete the project.
“He hasn’t done scholarly work in 50 years, and he did a great job,” Vitali said. “I am reassured that after many years away from formal studies, a person can pick up a difficult text and write an analytical paper.”
Mills returned to SLU in May to participate in commencement ceremonies. Servino flew from Oregon to cheer him on.
“We are proud to have Stanley here today and are inspired by his example of determination,” said University President Lawrence Biondi, S.J., during commencement.
Mills was a bit embarrassed by all the attention.
“Father Biondi talked about me and asked me to stand up,” Mills said. “Then, everyone else stood up. It was a standing ovation! I just had to laugh.”