June 28, 2001
William Waring, professor emeritus of pediatrics, is an accomplished man by any standard. He's a prominent figure in the treatment of children's pulmonary diseases and has had a long and successful career at Tulane. He's raised five sons with his wife, Nell-Pape Waring, herself a pediatrician and Tulane alumna. Three of their sons are Tulane graduates.
And now Waring is a Tulane graduate himself. There's not much that Waring lacks, but up until last month there was one missing piece in his life: a bachelor's degree. Waring was in high school when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. By the time he was pre-med at Yale, the war was in full swing and the Army was in need of doctors.
So after only three semesters of undergraduate work, he joined the Army and was sent to Harvard Medical School. There were other young doctors-in-training who had their education cut short; most were given more-or-less honorary degrees by their undergraduate institutions in recognition of their service to their country. But Yale did not do that. By the time Waring's training was over, so was the war.
But by then his medical career was under way, and there was no time to make up for the education he had missed. He finished his residency in pediatrics at Johns Hopkins, where he met Nell-Pape, also a young resident. They fell in love and got married.
During the Korean War he was stationed in Japan, thereby fulfilling his obligation to the Army. Afterward, he returned to the United States and practiced in Jacksonville, Fla., for a few years before joining Tulane University Medical School in 1958. His missing bachelor's degree was not a professional handicap, but sometimes he felt its lack personally.
Decades later, when he was cutting back on his duties at the medical school in preparation for retirement, he decided that it was finally time to finish his degree.
"I thought it would be a wonderful opportunity," Waring said. He registered to take classes through University College. He still had obligations at the medical school, and there was no need to rush to finish his degree, so he settled on a schedule of one class every spring semester. The university gave him credit for his work at Yale and even some of his courses in medical school.
Even so, it took him seven years to graduate. His first two courses were in architectural history, taken on the advice of his son, Peter Waring, a graduate of Tulane School of Architecture. He struggled a little in his first class.
"There was so much memorizing, it sort of blew me away for awhile," he said. "Then I started using flash cards. I finally caught on towards the end, but the damage was done."
The B-plus he got in that course prevented him from having a perfect 4.0 grade point average. Still, he's not overly impressed with that accomplishment.
"It wasn't hard," he said. "After all, I was taking only one class." But some of those courses were among the most challenging offered at Tulane. Waring's adviser, University College associate dean Terrence Fitzmorris, suggested that he take a course with the popular but extremely demanding history professor Kenneth Harl.
One seminar in Roman history eventually led to four seminars with Harl. Each one required three or four papers and a final thesis. Waring read Thucydides and wrote about Byzantine churches, the plague of Athens and other topics in ancient history.
"Those papers come like clockwork, and boy, he goes through them very carefully," Waring said. But he describes the reading and the research as "wonderful." "I've learned so much, and I really am grateful that I never had a chance to finish college until now," he said, adding that he gained so much more as a mature student.
But then, the five decades he has on the average college student gives him a different perspective. He had a lifetime to develop his intellectual curiosities; now he had the chance to indulge them. For example, his brother, A.J. Waring, was an amateur archeologist who co-authored a seminal work on the Southeastern ceremonial complex, a group of mounds and relics left behind by a civilization that existed in the Southeastern United States that had largely disappeared before the arrival of Europeans.
Waring never really understood his brother's contributions to the field, but in an archaeology class with anthropology professor T.R. Kidder he researched and wrote a paper about his brother's work. In May, at the age of 77, Waring put on a cap and gown and walked down the aisle of the Superdome to receive his bachelor's degree in social science. His wife, his children, and even his grandchildren were there to cheer him on.
"It's been a wonderful, wonderful trip," he said, "I've learned so much." But now he's ready to get on with his next project: writing a history of Tulane's pediatrics department in collaboration with Lennie Washington, an editor in the pediatrics department. "Lennie and I have been talking about this project for a while," said Waring. "I've been around long enough that my tentacles reach fairly far back."
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