An animal sciences degree … at 81
May 27, 2014
Bill Webster has been a lot of things in his years: an innovator in the cattle industry, a dedicated philanthropist, a county commissioner, a state representative.
Now at the age of 81, Webster will become for the first time something he's always wanted to be: a college graduate.
"I've always regretted not getting a degree," said Webster, who will graduate on Saturday from Colorado State University with a bachelor's degree in animal science. "I just decided one day I'm going to get it."
Webster, born in the early 1930s, was a child during the Great Depression, and his father William, who worked as the second assistant to William Mayo at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, brought health care innovations to Greeley.
"He got paid with chickens and eggs and ham for the medical bills," Bill Webster said.
Webster said having lived through the toils of the Depression, his father encouraged him to earn a degree. Webster said he completed three years of schooling at Colorado State University and returned to school after serving in the U.S. Army, but he was simply too eager to start working on the farm to finish his last 18 credits.
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"I got tired of it," he said. "I got tired of school."
Webster ultimately formed Webster Land and Cattle Co. and Webster Feed Lots, Inc., pioneering the feeding of "flaked" corn and helping to introduce computer technology to the cattle industry. Webster was a founder of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Weld County, and has been on boards for the National Cattlemen's Association, United Way of Weld County and the Greeley Planning Commission, among others.
Webster served for eight years as a Weld County commissioner and for two terms as a representative at the state legislature.
Webster has always been surrounded by people with college educations, a fact that was constant in the back of his mind. On top of his vast experience in the medical field, Webster's father earned a law degree at the age of 65.
"When he died, he was working on his CPA," Webster said of his father. "He was one of those guys. He was a brilliant fellow.
"That's another reason (for going back to college). I thought maybe he was looking down at me, that I better get that degree."
Webster's wife, Sylvia, founder of the North Colorado Medical Center Foundation and who sat on the Greeley-Evans School District 6 Board of Education among other boards, earned two degrees, one from the University of Northern Colorado and one from CSU.
"I always wanted to borrow one of those," Bill Webster said with a chuckle.
While Webster didn't officially earn a diploma, he and his wife, Sylvia, encouraged their children to pursue higher education — a goal all three of them fulfilled. Webster said he is extremely proud of his children: Wade, a doctor in Seattle; Dan, who took over the family's feedlot, and Perry Buck, now following in her father's footsteps in her first term as a representative at the state legislature.
Wade Webster said in his family, skipping college has just never seemed like an option. He said with all of his father's accomplishments, it didn't seem necessary for him to earn a degree, but he's glad to know that his father will finally have the diploma he's always wanted.
"He's expected us, all of us including his grandchildren, to get their degrees, so I know it was important for him that way," Wade Webster said, pointing out that his daughter will be graduating from college this spring, as well. "I think there's going to be a real peacefulness that he might not have had otherwise."
In order to fulfill his remaining 18 credits at CSU, Webster took two classes at Aims Community College and several at CSU. He said he lectured students on cattle feeding, animal nutrition and feedlot management — topics where he's the expert — to earn credit.
Webster said he deeply enjoyed his history class at Aims, taught by Professor Clint Heiner. The class covered the Civil War through World War II, and Webster said since he remembers growing up during part of that time period, he enjoyed the lectures.
Webster said he tried to limit his comments to avoid being a distraction.
"I wanted the students to not feel that I was infringing upon their education," he said.
But Heiner said Webster's presence in the classroom was much the opposite.
"He just enriched the classroom to a degree that I've never really experienced before," Heiner said. "He's a really good example of living history."
Heiner said several students told him they learned a great deal from having Webster in their classroom, noting that those who sat next to Webster would often listen with their mouths agape as he talked about WWII and events like the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.
"It was just such a pleasure to be able to have that firsthand experience," Heiner said. "I think my students got more out of it than reading and writing. He was able to give us a sense of what it felt like to actually live then. It really brought it to life."
Wade Webster said he's always watched his mother support his father and vise versa, and this endeavor has been no different.
"They were always that kind of couple I wanted to have a relationship like," Wade Webster said. "It's been a real team effort."
Sylvia Webster said she never pressured her husband to earn a degree, but she was happy to see him decide to go back to college because she knew it's always been a goal of his.
"It's never even been mentioned, so I never would have expected this to come about at 80 years old," she said.
Webster said he's been a longtime supporter of the CSU Rams, and he looks forward to officially being an alumni as he roots on his team. He said he plans to walk across the stage on graduation day, cap, gown and all, with his family there to celebrate with him.
"They want me to go through the procession, so I will do that, and I will be very, very happy to have the diploma in my pocket," Webster said. ❖