90-year-old Bethel Park man graduating from University of Pittsburgh

Published Apr 21, 2014 at 2:02 pm (Updated Apr 30, 2014 at 1:02 pm)

As John Downs' five daughters were sorting through memorabilia in preparation for his 90th birthday, they discovered paperwork from 1950 that was sent to their father to apply for his degree from the University of Pittsburgh.

Downs, who grew up in Wilkensburg and graduated from Central Catholic High School in 1943, was a radar mechanic with the Air Force during World War II. After returning to Pittsburgh, he attended Pitt on the GI Bill, completing all of his credits for a history degree between 1946 and 1950.

While his classmates were attending graduation ceremonies, Downs' was working as a salesman for a South Side mill and mine supply house, where he met and soon married stenographer JoAnne DuScheid. After working in a variety of sales jobs, he took a position at Pittsburgh's historic J. R. Weldin Company, where he put his love of history to use throughout his career as a pen specialist.

During their 63 years of marriage, he and JoAnne raised five daughters in Baldwin – Darlene (Kent), currently living in Winchester, Va., Dianne (Lynch) of Upper St. Clair, Donna (Eppard) of Winchester, Va., Denise (Edgar) of Bethel Park, and Dana (Buckman) of Dalla, Pa. As their daughters married, they couple welcomed son-in-laws Dick Kent, Rich Lynch, Kevin Eppard, Mark Edgar and Freddy Buckman; and 21 grandchildren: Katie (31), Steven (29), David (27), and Johnny (25) Kent, Ryan (31), Lindsay (27), Elissa (23), and Michael (19) Lynch, Emily (22), Elizabeth (20), Daniel (18), David (17), Catherine (15), and Christian (12) Eppard, Sarah (27), Allison (25), Alex (22), and Sean (18) Edgar, and Kevin (24), Rachel (21), and Laura (15) Buckman. John and JoAnne are looking forward to the birth of their first great-grandchild this summer, as granddaughter Sarah and her husband Jimmy are expecting their first child this July.

Although Downs' daughters weren't sure why their father never submitted his final paperwork, after finding his college transcripts, they brought them to the attention of Pitt administrators to see if Downs was eligible for his degree. Officials reviewed his records, and at his 90th birthday party last month, Downs received a very special gift – the announcement that he would officially earn his bachelor degree in history from Pitt.

Downs' daughters shared the letter that their father received from N. John Cooper, Bettye J. and Ralph E. Bailey Dean of Pitt's Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, during his party. Dean Cooper wrote, “Your academic record in the College at the University of Pittsburgh between 1946 and 1950 was recently brought to my attention. The Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences is the successor organization to the College and I asked my staff to review your transcript within the context of the rules then in effect for College degrees. My staff reviewed requirements for a Bachelor of Arts degree, and have determined that you earned the required number of credits, fulfilled the field requirements, and completed a program of study sufficient to define History as your major area of study.”

“Everyone had tears in their eyes,” recalled Downs' daughter, Dianne Lynch of Upper St. Clair, adding that her father was caught off guard by the news.

Dean Cooper said, “I am delighted that the academic record of John Downs was brought to my attention and that it meets the requirements for a Pitt Bachelor of Arts degree in history. I wish him heartfelt congratulations on graduating from the Dietrich School.”

Since the announcement, Dianne said things have almost been like a fairy tale. She said her father was recently invited to a luncheon at Pitt at the University Club so members of Pitt's history department could speak with him. Other family members were also invited to attend, and Dianne said, “They treated us like royalty.”

In addition to her father's enthusiasm about his upcoming graduation, Dianne said her mom has been just as caught up with it, even joking with the academics at the luncheon. Joanne asked one of the professors, “Who is going to hire John?”

Downs plans to be at Pitt's commencement on April 27, with full cap and gown, courtesy of Pitt's history department. Dianne said her son Michael, a freshman engineering student, hopes to wear his grandfather's regalia when he graduates.

Downs also plans to attend the history department's informal gathering before commencement. Joanne and his family plan to be there to cheer his accomplishment – receiving his diploma from Pitt.

When asked his thoughts about finally receiving his diploma, Downs said his main lesson in life has been “keep the faith.”

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