Excited chatter and bright orange tassels filled the back halls of the Frank Erwin Center May 16th at 6 p.m. as soon-to-be graduates scurried to form alphabetical lines before making the grand entrance into the spring 2008 Cockrell School of Engineering commencement ceremony. For many students, graduation day is a long road from their first year, but for Robert B. Tenison this day was 66 years in the making.

When asked why he petitioned to graduate with the class of 2008, the 84-year old resident of Abilene, Texas responded, “I have always been a proponent of education. In talking to my grandkids, I thought, this is a silly situation. Here I am preaching to them to get a degree and I don’t have one myself!” Originally from Houston, Texas, Mr. Tenison first began classes at UT in 1942 in the new Department of Aeronautical Engineering. There was not a published curriculum and students worked with a faculty advisor to determine classes. As a student, Mr. Tenison was president of SAE Fraternity, tried out for the football team, and enlisted in the U.S. Navy. His military duties interfered with his student status, relocating him to the Olathe, Kansas Airbase.

When the war was over, Mr. Tenison returned to UT for summer school thinking this would complete the requirements for his degree. “I thought that I had the degree; I even bought my ring,” said Mr. Tenison. By 1946, however, there was a published degree plan and some of the courses had changed. Mr. Tenison left school for the last time. “I was out of money and I needed to make a living,” explained Mr. Tenison. “So I decided to go into the oil business, taking a job at $95/month. I have been in the oil business for over 55 years now.” “I would have liked to have the degree, but it was not critical to my work,” said Mr. Tenison. Over the last 62 years, Mr. Tenison has worked in all facets of the oil business, eventually starting Tenison Oil Company in 1988. He lost his first wife Anna Jo Tenison after a lengthy battle with ALS and married Willie Mae Tenison. Together, he and Willie Mae have five children, ten grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.

In early 2008, Mrs. Tenison called the University to check the actual status of Mr. Tenison’s degree, hoping he could still complete needed coursework to graduate. Since the Aeronautical Department no longer exists, his information was forwarded to the Aerospace Engineering Department. After a thorough review of his course work and one very reasonable course substitution, the registrar determined Mr. Tenison had indeed earned his 1946 Aeronautical Engineering degree. He was added to the list of graduates for 1946, becoming the 22nd graduate at UT in Aeronautical Engineering.

In a borrowed cap and gown from the Cockrell School of Engineering, Mr. Tenison joined the rest of the graduates seated before Dean Streetman and Cockrell School of Engineering faculty for the graduation exercises. In the audience were his wife, Willie Mae, his children, and two grandchildren. First to cross the stage, thunderous applause erupted from the student population as they realized the face on the Jumbo Tron was that of an 84-year-old man. With degree in hand, Mr. Tenison waved to his new fans and exited stage left, thus ending his education, embraced in a spontaneous standing ovation and cheers of thousands.

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