Iowa Alumni Magazine | December 2006 | People

The Scenic Route: Bernard Bockes

By Stephan Schmidt

At the age of 81, Bernard Bockes is giving higher education another try. Bockes has always enjoyed learning—as a teenager growing up in Dubuque, he would stay up late reading until his mother demanded that he turn out the light. But wanderlust, together with haunting memories of war and a long-term battle with alcoholism, kept Bockes from pursuing the "typical" university experience.

Bernard Bockes Photo: Aaron Hall Holmgren/Daily Iowan
At 81, UI junior Bernard Bockes knows there's still much to learn.

"The biggest story of my life is sidetracks," says Bockes, a UI junior. "I never wanted anybody telling me what I had to do or when I had to do it."

Throughout the years, Bockes struggled with finding a formal place where he could pursue his passion for literature while maintaining a free spirit. His journey along the road less traveled began after he completed a tour of duty in World War II and decided to use his G.I. money to attend Emerson University in Boston. Despite receiving praise from his liberal arts teachers, Bockes found that his military experiences and the emotional wounds from an over-disciplined childhood left him feeling cold toward the "top-down authority" of higher education. He rebelled, leaving Emerson without a degree. For the next 40 years, he traveled from coast to coast, working odd jobs and losing himself in novels, art, and writing.

The desire to pen a novel and the personal challenge of finally earning a diploma led Bockes to the UI. Six decades since he first enrolled in college, he finally feels at home in an environment that values literature so highly. He impresses his classmates with his knowledge and readily shares his observations with teachers and students alike. Proudly one of the most active participants in his classes, he loves critiquing assigned texts and pulls rank on his professors when necessary.

Bockes is on track to graduate with an English degree in three years. He admits he's having a good time so far, and he doesn't regret taking the long way to get here. In his opinion, today's young people are too career-oriented and should make time to discover themselves. "My advice is 'keep your world large,'" says Bockes. "Don't let people shrink your world to their desires."

Looking forward to graduation day, he says, "It will mean I did it their way and it didn't destroy me. That I survived, and it was fun."