Jim Chaffins has always loved to learn. Raised in West Virginia, he finished high school a semester early and enrolled at West Virginia Tech. His college plans, however, encountered a slight roadblock: World War II.
"I'm a 91-year-old freshman at the University of Arizona enrolled in online classes," Chaffins said, sitting in a common area at the retirement community in Green Valley, Arizona, where he lives. "I enjoy it very much, but, like I tell people, it's not the destination. It's the trip. The getting there."
After serving on Navy convoy duty in the Caribbean, Chaffins came home to start a career and a family. He went to work in the printing industry, setting type on newspapers such as the Detroit News, which eventually led to acquiring, growing and selling his own printing plant.
Despite all that he learned during his career and service, Chaffins said one part of his life never felt quite right.
"I've always felt that there was something missing," he said. "I don't have a degree."
When he decided to go back to school at the UA, he thought he'd need to start over. But then an enrollment counselor at the UA asked to see his transcripts from West Virginia Tech.
"So I called the college, and I told them I needed a transcript," Chaffins said. "And they said, 'Yeah, that’s no problem. We can get that right away for you.' And I said, 'Well, there’s one caveat: We're talking about the spring semester 1943.'"
The transcripts were found, and the UA accepted them. That's how Chaffins re-enrolled as a freshman in history with nine credit hours to his name after 74 years.
Following a Dream
Over his decades-long career, Chaffins honed his leadership abilities and picked up a wealth of practical knowledge, but he never acquired one increasingly prevalent skill set.
"While I was earning a living and raising a family, a lot of people were learning about computers, and that passed me by," he said. "I'm carrying two classes, but actually I'm working on three: the two for the college, and one to learn how to do the things that are required on the computer."
He reached out to Kami Merrifield, his UA Online student academic success specialist. Individuals in this role are dedicated to making sure that online students get what they need to succeed.
"He's not afraid to ask for help, which is key to any student's success,” Merrifield said of Chaffins. "We went through everything step by step, and it helped me build a mental script to guide other students through the same process."
Merrifield said Chaffins already has been a contributor in his online classes.
"He's definitely had an impact," she said. "I've heard from professors that they love UA Online students because they bring interesting, real-life examples from these fields, and he does that better than anyone. It creates a really rich environment that benefits all students. Knowing there are people out there who love learning and are willing to jump into this challenge … I think it gives others the confidence to do it."
Chaffins said two things are important to living a long and satisfying life.
"One is you stay busy, and the other is your ability to laugh at yourself," he said. "You got that, you don't need anything else."
Staying busy, he said, has not been a problem in his UA Online classes, which are flexible but demanding.
"You have to discipline yourself to use the time," he said. "If you don't, and you go to watching TV instead of watching your computer, you're gonna lose your time, and time is valuable. You notice that more when you get to be 91 than when you're 19."
Chaffins also has plenty of support, not only from advisers such as Merrifield but also from those closest to him.
"I get a lot of encouragement," he said. "There's one lady here, she knew how much I wanted to go back to school, but my blood sugar — I'm diabetic — my blood sugar just went through the sky.
"I talked to a doctor and a couple of nurses about it, and they said, 'Well, we're not going to tell you to drop out of school, but we're telling you what's creating that stress and strain. It's that schoolwork.' So I talked to this lady about it, and she said, 'Jim, don't you dare drop out. Do something about your diet.' So I put myself on a low-carb diet. I brought that down right away."
A Long Life of Learning
Years ago, Chaffins went to spend Thanksgiving with family. At dinner, his brother Jack stood up and told a story — one he never had told anyone before — about the teacher of a high school English class they both had passed, seven years apart.
As Jim recalled Jack saying: "She assigned us an essay and said we were supposed to pick whatever we wanted to write the essay on. And then she read one to us. She said, 'Now, that’s the kind of essay that I want you to write.' She said, 'That was written by Jim Chaffins, Jack's brother, seven years ago. That's the best high school essay I ever received.'
"Well, I'm floating," Jim said. "My brother would talk baseball all day to you, but he'd never said anything about that."
Even at a young age, a desire to learn drove Jim Chaffins toward big goals. War may have interrupted his classes, but he never stopped learning. And now that he's back, he said he plans to see it through.
"I might not ever get to the point where I could possibly get a degree in history, but it's fun trying," he said, chuckling. "I've already promised one of my friends that I would try to get him a ticket to go to the Commencement, so I'm going to have to go."