Graduation 2019: Thrown off course by the Vietnam War, Huntington Beach veteran finishes college at 71

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Graduate Joe Taylor at Cal State Dominguez Hills in Carson, CA, on Wednesday, May 22, 2019. Taylor graduated with a bachelorÕs degree in business administration. The Huntington Beach resident had something to prove to himself, and a promise to fulfill to his twin 19-year-old granddaughters. A decorated Navy combat veteran, Taylor had been on the college track when he returned from the Vietnam War in 1972. However, the psychological effects of the war and the need to support his growing family interrupted his college education. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

For most, a freshly minted college diploma signifies the first step on an exciting career path.

But, rather than job interviews, Joe Taylor’s calendar is marked with a retirement date: July 11, less than two months after completing his bachelor’s degree.

Nearly half a century after abandoning his college dream, the Huntington Beach resident has graduated at age 71 from Cal State Dominguez Hills.

First, his college pursuit was interrupted by the Vietnam War, and then by post-traumatic stress disorder.

After graduating from Venice High in 1966, Taylor played football at Los Angeles Harbor College. At 20, he received his draft notice. “I was just a regular guy thinking about cars and girls, and suddenly everything changed,” he said.

Assigned to serve in the U.S. Navy, Taylor endured bombardments, storms that nearly capsized his ship and indelible tragedies. Once, futilely applying a tourniquet, he attempted to save a sailor whose arm was ripped off in an accident.

The decorated combat veteran came home a different person in 1972. “We didn’t call it PTSD back then,” Taylor said. “But what I know is that I felt very anxious and often angry.”

Taylor enrolled at El Camino College in Torrance, later transferring to CSUDH. But his PTSD symptoms made studying difficult. “I couldn’t concentrate,” he said.

So he took a break. Then, before he had time to consider a reboot, life happened. He got married and had two children. Priorities switched from textbooks to paychecks.

After working in restaurants, Taylor landed employment as a parking lot attendant at Hollywood Park Racetrack in Inglewood – where he remained for four decades. Along the way, he earned several promotions – the first, he wryly noted, his highest paying. Moving up to valet parking, Taylor pocketed generous tips from the well-to-do – including celebrities such as Mel Brooks, Martin Sheen, Mickey Rooney and Don Adams.

In 1997, he ascended to a desk job as assistant parking manager and, later, manager. When Hollywood Park Racetrack closed in 2013, Los Alamitos Race Course nabbed him for the same position – from which he soon will retire.

A few years ago, with his teen grandchildren talking about college, Taylor began musing over his own ambitions of higher education. However, getting accepted again at CSUDH proved harder than he had imagined.

Originally, Taylor took prerequisites needed for a real estate degree. But CSUDH had long since discontinued that program, rendering moot many of his previous credits. “I didn’t want to start all over,” he said.

After months of untangling red tape, the university approved Taylor for a degree in business management.

Then came the really hard part: Newfangled technology. Taylor quickly realized that college assessments were no longer essays handwritten in blue books.

“He couldn’t even power up a computer, let alone make a PowerPoint,” said his son Richard Taylor, 42, who spent hours by his father’s side helping him figure it all out. Although his dad is now adept at Excel and spreadsheets, he added, “I couldn’t teach him how to type more than 10 words per hour.”

Sitting in a class full of millennials made the elder Taylor acutely aware that he was, well, the elder. Once or twice, he said, he got the vibe that students didn’t want him in their project group because he lacked those all-important technology skills.

But overall, he said, the youngsters treated him with respect, patiently lending him a hand with computer issues and complex math problems. And Taylor had a lot to offer his fellow students in return, sharing such tips as lessons learned from his side business installing vinyl windows.

Inconveniently, Taylor came down with tonsillitis last week – forcing him to miss his graduation ceremony. Still, a sore throat could not dampen his enthusiasm for that sacred piece of paper bearing the Cal State Dominguez Hills seal.

“I have exercised my brain and expanded my world so much over the past two years,” Taylor said. “I swear, going back to college added 20 years to my life.”