Never Too Late
Alfonso Gonzales started at USC in 1947 as the first person in his family to go to college. Photos by Gus Ruelas.

Never Too Late

Alfonso Gonzales reflects on being a member of the Class of 2016 and becoming USC’s oldest graduate at 96 years old.
Alfonso Gonzales

My first memory is of my grandmother. I’m 4 years old and she’s wearing a long dress and cooking tortillas in the boarding house she ran in the Lompoc, Calif., mining camp where I was born.

Now, I am four years shy of my 100th birthday.

But — unexpectedly — I’m a student again. I thought I graduated in 1953, but when I recently discovered I was one unit short of my degree I was excited. Learning has always been important to me, and this meant I could return to USC.

I’m what they called a “Depression Kid” — I grew up during the Great Depression. My parents had fled the Mexican Revolution for California. My father worked on the railroads before joining the mining camp. We lived there until I was 8, then moved to Boyle Heights. That’s where I first tasted spaghetti and saw the first talking picture in East Los Angeles. Then we lived in Redondo Beach, and when I was 10, we moved into a cottage in Hermosa Beach. I’ve lived there, in the same house, for the last 86 years. At night, I lie in bed and reminisce about my life.

Growing up, because of racism, I suffered a persecution complex. That’s very injurious to a human being so I overcame it. Thankfully we’re making progress on racism. I look at my own descendants, who are American, Spanish, Mexican American, German, Irish, Salvadorean, Native American and indigenous. It’s a wonderful mix.

I was 12 when I got my first summertime job picking strawberries grown by Japanese gardeners in Torrance.  I saw the gardeners taken away to internment camps after Pearl Harbor. Some were my friends. All that land is built over now.

I joined the U.S. Navy in 1942 and trained as a medic, serving at Okinawa in 1945. After the war, I attended evening classes at USC. I was the first in my family to go to college. The old Red Car line ran along Vermont, and when we came to campus we wore suits and neckties.

During the day I worked in my brothers’ excavation business, but then I had the idea of preparing soils for nurseries and landscapers. Where did I get the knowledge? At USC. I took courses in chemistry, physics, botany and bacteriology because initially I wanted to be a doctor.

Instead, I built a successful business supplying soil throughout the South Bay. I could’ve gone into construction, but I never wanted lots of money, just enough to support my mother and for my old age.

Landscape Right

Alfonso Gonzales finishes up his last class in autographical writing at the USC Davis School of Gerontology as he answers questions from classmates Kelsey Reinhardt, left, and Rita Chakrian.

Returning to USC makes me feel good. Seeing young students from different countries has changed me from being a pessimist about the state of the world to being an optimist. There weren’t many Latinos when I first came to USC. But now there are lots, and many foreign students, too. That makes me happy.

Universities are about leadership, and USC students will become the leaders, not only of the United States, but of the world.

I’ve seen many changes in my lifetime, the biggest being the advent of computers. We didn’t have them when I was a student the first time around. We had to take notes and use a dictionary. When I first saw cell phones, I said, “This isn’t going to last, it’s a fad.” But it wasn’t a fad. I made a big mistake. Now you kids have the world’s knowledge at your fingertips. The technological revolution is amazing. And it’s just beginning. I’m excited to be here to witness this.

I hope seeing me at 96 years old trying to complete my “elusive college degree” will inspire younger students to keep on learning; it’s never too late. If you have knowledge, no one can take it away from you. That’s worth more than money.

Youngsters are optimistic, but older folks sometimes aren’t. We grew up in a different time when there was always an enemy. The only real enemy is ignorance. But thanks to USC students, I’m optimistic about the world. I know it’s in good hands. 

A firm believer in lifelong learning, Alfonso Gonzales completed his degree in zoology by taking a specially crafted one-unit  elective: a guided autobiography in which he explored self-identity while writing his personal story.

Read more stories from USC Dornsife Magazine’s Spring-Summer 2016 issue >>