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It was about five minutes after Robert Dresnack’s Water Resources Engineering class had begun when a septuagenarian poked his head into the room. Puzzled, the professor inquired, “May I help you?”

In fact, he could. “I’m a student in this class,” replied Chris Antholis, then 72, who was six years into his quest to earn a Bachelor of Science in civil and environmental engineering. The required course, on the increasingly urgent topic of water supply planning, had not yet been scratched off his list. He quickly took a seat at an empty desk.

A longtime building contractor who spent the past 15 years as a building and fire inspector for the town of Parsippany until retiring last year, Antholis well understood the rules and policies of his industry, but says he returned to school mostly to learn “the whys” behind his 50-year career: how engineers design foundations in flood zones and municipal planners forecast water needs a half a century into the future.

“I was exposed to this world for years and knew enough to do what was required, but I came back here to learn the reasons why,” noted Antholis, who earned an associate degree from Montgomery College in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. 50 years ago, but then dropped out of the University of Maryland’s engineering program after “not opening a book.”

On May 15, he could say “mission(s) accomplished.” As he took the stage at the 2018 Commencement ceremony at the Prudential Center, Antholis, at 74, was the oldest undergraduate to flip his mortarboard tassel to the left – indeed, the oldest ever in the history of the university, according to Michael Smullen, NJIT’s director of alumni relations.

“It was wonderful to see Chris on the stage,” Smullen said. “We are incredibly proud of him. He’s an inspiration to students of all ages. When you value education the way he does, there is not a moment in life you’re not learning.”

Antholis’s quest began in earnest more than a decade ago at the County College of Morris (CCM), where, like many county college and some NJIT students as well, he attended classes when he could fit them in while holding down a demanding job. Math was a bit of a struggle for about a month, but “it all came back” and he soon mastered several levels of calculus and linear algebra. 

After earning his second associate degree, he applied to NJIT and “fought for my CCM Calculus 1 class” to be accepted. He failed a couple of courses along the way, but doggedly retook them and passed. Once he stayed up late and deleted half an essay on technology and politics, but no matter. He quickly rewrote it.

“I failed the midterm in my course on foundations, but I got an 90 on the final. I really studied for that class. Having been a building contractor for many years, I know how important foundations are, especially for big buildings. And in flood zones, high-level engineering is a must,” he said, adding “My professor, Vatsal Shah ('08, MS '09, PhD '14), was smart as a whip. Like so many of the nighttime instructors, he came back because he loves teaching and the school. I think these people are wonderful.”

Water Resources, as it turns out, was also one of his favorite courses.

Bob Dresnack and Chris Antholis

After their awkward introduction, for which the professor notes that he “had no forewarning,” he and his senior student quickly bonded. Antholis took references to “my mature students” in stride. And Dresnack (left), now 75, in turn merely chuckled when Antholis observed that he was “my only professor older than I am.”

“We’re in this together, we two old-timers,” said Dresnack, who retired in January. Paying him the ultimate compliment, he added, “After a couple of weeks, he completely blended in with my other students. He really participated.”

“A lot of people my age don’t work their brains. It’s like riding a bicycle, the muscles are there, but you’ve got to put them to use,” he observed. “If you have a job, you often do the same thing over and over. Doing something different really wakes you up.”

At the Civil Engineering brunch after graduation, Antholis was surrounded by a sizeable fan club of professors and staff and about a dozen family members from all over the country: Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and California. One is a noted cardiovascular surgeon, another an HBO executive and another a prominent academic at the University of Virginia.

“He’s my hero,” said his cousin Virginia Dematatis, who teaches homeless children in San Diego to read and often points to Chris as inspiration that anything is truly possible.

His influence is not limited to the West Coast.

Not long ago, Dresnack overheard a cashier at Costco telling the bagger that she wished she could return to school so that she could work with animals, but couldn’t imagine it in her 50s. He piped in.

“You’re just a babe at 53! I know someone in his 70s who just earned a degree,” he told her.

As he stepped off the stage last week and began walking back up the aisle, Antholis said at least three or four people shook his hand. Of his milestone, he noted, “I felt so good about doing it. There are so many people with talent who should.”

And now, like thousands of graduates around the country, he’s contemplating his next move. “I’m relaxing for a bit, but then I’ll start looking – something to do with building.”

Chris Antholis