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84-year-old graduates WashU 67 years after he was a freshman

"I just want to finish what I started"
Credit: St. Louis American
Henlay Foster was within nine credit hours of graduating from Washington University when he decided to join the Army.

ST. LOUIS — When Henlay Foster first enrolled at Washington University in 1954, he was one of the first Black students to seek a degree on that campus. Now, 67 years later, he has finally earned that degree after taking virtual classes at his Maryland home.

“This degree is not going to help me get another job. It’s not going to help me at all, actually,” Foster said from his home in Rockville, Md., near Washington D.C.

“I just want to finish what I started.” He will be graduating Friday, May 21, with a degree in music.

Foster grew up in Webster Groves, where he attended Douglass High School, which at the time was a segregated school for Black students.

He chose Washington University in order to study classical piano with famed musician and conductor William Schatzkamer. When he was nine credits away from graduation, Foster chose a different path: enlisting in the U.S. Army. Foster requested an assignment in Germany, home to glorious concert halls and opera houses. 

“For someone who loved classical music, this was the place to be,” said Foster, who wrote a music column for a paper in Salzburg, Austria, while serving in the Army.

Then, back home in St. Louis, he met and married jazz singer Clea Bradford, and became involved in racial equity and anti-poverty work.

He was offered a job at the St. Louis Human Development Corp., which led to a position with the St. Louis’ Head Start program.

After a series of promotions and a move to Washington, Foster was asked to serve as the national director of Head Start, overseeing a budget of nearly $1 billion and some 1,500 community-based organizations. 

After retiring in 1994, Foster enjoyed playing piano, thoroughbred racing and traveling. He did not fret about his unfinished degree.

“And then one day, I said to myself, ‘Why not finish what you started?’” Foster said. 

Initially, he thought about attending one of the schools in the D.C. area for his remaining nine credits. But then, as COVID-19 arrived, Washington University moved its classes online, giving Foster the surprise opportunity to finish his degree where he’d started it.

He enrolled in two nonfiction writing classes with Professor Deanna Benjamin, where his unusual schooling experience made him a valuable contributor to the courses.

“After 84 years, he sees things differently,” Benjamin said. “It was really valuable for the students to hear his perspective. And as an instructor, it was a pleasure to listen to his story.”

Foster said he will log on to the university’s website and watch the virtual graduation ceremony. He has no other plans to mark this special occasion, almost seven decades in the making. 

“I don’t even celebrate my birthday,” Foster said.

“Though maybe I’ll get a good Italian dinner. Other than that, I’ll just be satisfied in my own mind.”