There is something so wonderfully unexpected about seeing anyone over the age of 25 in Lower Beamer. So the sight of Fred Hutson — Wheaton’s oldest student at 84-years-old — sitting back in one of the couches was quite the delight. Unlike the other students surrounding him, he was just sitting, no phone or laptop or even textbook. He didn’t appear to be waiting. He seemed content to simply sit and be. I smiled in his direction and he perked up, greeting me with a bright, Southern, “Well, hi there!”
Hutson began auditing classes at Wheaton in 2012, the same year his grandson Gibson Danekas ’16, started. Hutson has since taken 10 classes in the art, BITH, history and philosophy departments. He’s currently in a World War II history class. “What an experience for me to have lived during a period of history that everyone else reads about!” he said. His perspective in the classroom is so distinct from that of the average Wheatie because of the decades he’s lived through.
The Family Years
The constant throughout Fred’s life was his wife Martha. He was born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1932, “and had no idea that a baby in the nursery beside me was going to be my future wife.” From the beginning, there she was. They grew up near each other, but never really met until after high school, in 1950, at which point they started to build a close friendship.
After graduating from high school, Hutson moved from Ohio to Percy Jones Hospital in Battle Creek, Mich., in 1952 to work as a surgical technician for soldiers coming home from Korea within 24 hours of their injuries. “[To] experience someone who has been injured so severely just hours ago, it was hard for me to emotionally come together,” Hutson said.
It was then that he and Martha wrote letters to each other, slowly becoming, “good, real, close friends.” He moved back to Ohio in 1954 after she had graduated from Otterbein College with a degree in education. Throughout their correspondence, “[they] felt their lives coming closer together as time went on.” They married in December 1955, a seamless and obvious transition from best friends to partners.
“And lo and behold, one year after our marriage, June 27, 1956, our daughter Lynn Ellen was born,” Hutson recounted, smiling wide with joy. He was still at Marietta College studying petroleum engineering and Martha was a teacher nearby, but the Hutsons were “ready for the change, and it was exciting.”
Lynn and her own family eventually moved up to Wheaton, followed by Fred and Martha many years later, another choice that marked “immense” change in the lives of the Hutson’s.
The Traveling Years
I realized as I listened to Hutson’s story how rarely young people tell their stories in broad brushstrokes. Our scope is so limited, our years so few that we pick out key moments that have shaped us. Hutson, on the other hand, spoke of his life in eras, as phases that can be labeled: “my real estate years,” “my traveling years,” “my war years.”
Hutson only needed a few sentences to cover the decades from when Lynn was born to when he and Martha moved to Wheaton to join a grown-up Lynn and her family. In 1961, he joined Tube Turns, a pipeline parts company, as a salesman. As he climbed the ranks from international salesman to district manager, his job moved his family from Louisville, Ky., in
1962 to Nashville, Tenn., in 1968 and finally to Charlotte, N.C., in 1972.
“I did a lot of travelling and I was not home a great deal, so Martha managed the house and the family. I would appear suddenly on weekends for too many years. And one day, she turned and looked at me and said, ‘You’re always gone.’” Hutson recalled, taking a moment to clear his throat and wipe his eye. “I always get choked up over that.”
That one phrase changed his priorities. They put down deeper roots in Charlotte. His time at Tube Turns came to an end, and so he picked up a new job at McGuire Properties as a commercial real estate agent, making him a more permanent local fixture. He stayed there for 10 years until once again, “Martha looked at me, and she said, “Why don’t we go be with Lynn and the family in Wheaton?’” And off they moved.
They began their lives in Wheaton in 1995, as blank slates to fill with family and enjoyment.
To Hutson’s surprise, he picked up work at Joseph Bank Clothiers. The experience of working so interpersonally was fresh for Hutson — and he loved it. It was something entirely new, he said, and he “thoroughly enjoyed” meeting all types of people.
He and Martha spent another 15 years together in Wheaton, before Martha developed Alzheimer’s Disease and passed away in 2010, after 54 years of marriage. For the first time in half a century, Hutson was on his own. Professor Cliff Williams in the Philosophy department, Hutson’s professor for Emotions, recalled the class session they discussed grief and Fred’s willingness to share his ongoing grieving process after losing Martha. The students, Williams said, were captivated by Hutson’s story.
Two years after Martha passed, Danekus suggested to his grandfather that he should take classes at Wheaton. “I realized the impact of being entirely alone,” Hutson said about those years, and it was this feeling that lead him to take Danekus up on his idea.
So when Danekus started college, Hutson re-started college, too, with a totally different perspective than most undergrads.
The Wheaton Years
Cliff Williams, visiting professor of philosophy and the professor Hutson has taken the most classes with, appreciates how “[Hutson] brings new perspectives to the class discussions,” because he has “experiences that the typical college student has not yet had.” Of all the classes and professors Hutson has taken, philosophy classes with Williams have been his favorites. “Philosophy keeps you interested in who you are,” Hutson said of his relationship with the department, “and Cliff allows us to grow and understand who we are.”
Hutson notices this perspective shift in himself as well. When I asked him how he compares his Wheaton classes to his original undergrad classes, he immediately responded, “Oh, totally different eyes and different ears. I can’t say that strong enough.”
With more than 60 years on the average college student, Hutson has thoroughly lived the life that Wheaton students are just now dreaming about. “When you’re young,” he said, “and have the obligations of a young person, your eyes and ears are attuned to where you are and what you need to be doing.” There’s an immediacy to youth, a tendency to get lost in the next thing, something Hutson himself experienced during his years working to provide for his family. While he never expressed any regret, his heartbreak at missing family moments for the sake of work clearly weighed heavily on his heart.
“Now,” Hutson said, “I have the pleasure of enjoying each day through different eyes and different ears that allow me to savor the moment and enjoy the moment and to understand, somewhat, how life is evolving.”
Part of that evolution includes a new network of college-aged friends. Just recently, I found Hutson enjoying ice cream in Stupe with other students, laughing and catching up. Freshman Tice Wilkerson, a classmate and friend of Hutson’s, considers Hutson’s friendship an “incredible blessing,” and said that “[Hutson’s] fellow students are one of his life’s greatest joys.”
Hutson himself views this camaraderie with younger students a “God-given moment … a chance to relate, a chance to somewhat understand how the world revolves now.” As much as Wheaton students are eager to draw from Hutson’s experience, he’s equally excited about learning from his younger classmates.
It was simply by living, by putting one foot in front of the other, that his perspective was shaped, and trusting that “everything has happened for a reason, and God puts me in a position to be ready for the next event.” Hutson’s relationship with the Lord is a new one, relatively speaking; he became a Christian in the final days of Martha’s illness, seven years ago. But he’s been able to look back over his life and see where God had been working, whether he knew it then or not.
Outside of class, his days are about family and “enjoying life” — “It’s nice to not set an alarm clock,” he said, laughing. He spends as much time as he can with his grandchildren and helping Lynn and her family around the house. But it’s his classes at Wheaton that “have given me new vision, new strength and continue to contribute meaning to my life.”
I asked him at the end of our interview if he could offer a piece of advice to Wheaton students: “Continue to let God move your life. Continue to try to understand what it is God has sent you to do. Oh, enjoy life and have fun.”