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California and the West

Earning a Diploma for Himself--and for His Dad

Family: Herb Wesson dropped out of college two decades ago. Now an assemblyman, he has fulfilled a lifelong dream.

May 16, 1999|JENIFER WARREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — The Wessons of Cleveland were not a college-going clan. When the men grew up, most headed straight for the assembly line at Ford or Chevrolet. But the son called Herb was different. To him, college sounded like a good idea, so off he went.

All was well until dad fell ill and had to leave his job during Wesson's senior year. When the paychecks stopped, the boy had to pull out, simple as that.

A quarter-century has passed, and Herb Wesson--now a state assemblyman representing Culver City and Los Angeles--has fulfilled his long-delayed education dream at last.

After completing six remaining courses by mail, Wesson this month earned a bachelor of arts degree in history from Lincoln State University in Pennsylvania.

Wesson, a Democrat serving his first term in the Assembly, won't be celebrating grad night with other giddy graduates. Nor has he done anything to publicize his midlife accomplishment.

But he says reaching the goal marks an emotional moment matched only by the birth of his four sons and his election to the California Legislature.

"I come from a blue-collar family, and completing this journey means a lot," said Wesson, 47. "It took awhile, but I got there. I made it."

Wesson's sense of accomplishment reflects, in part, his struggle to get to college in the first place. The eldest son of an automobile plant worker, Wesson had been expected to join the assembly line like his dad, no questions asked.

"In his mind, there was nothing wrong with working your whole life on the assembly line--and of course there isn't," Wesson said. "But I was determined, so I pressed and pressed and finally my parents agreed that if I got in, we'd find a way to pay for it."

He did get in, and in 1969 went off to Lincoln, then a small African American liberal arts school. Back home, his father worked overtime and his mother took on odd jobs on top of her duties as a school district secretary.

Halfway through Wesson's senior year, his dad's ongoing heart troubles took a turn for the worse, making him unable to work. Wesson returned home and got a job as a salesman to help the family cover the bills. His father died a year later.

Depressed by the loss, Wesson dismissed the idea of returning to school, a decision he now calls a mistake: "I convinced myself that I didn't need the education, that I could make it without it," Wesson said.

He did make it, but the gap in his life--the unfinished mission--gnawed at him. Eventually, he resolved to finish, collecting the needed credits through correspondence courses.

In some ways, completing college as a fortysomething rather than a twentysomething, had its advantages. "I took it more seriously," Wesson said, "and I got better grades."

It also sent a message about the value of education to his sons, and represented a sort of thank you for his father, who had worked so hard to send Wesson to school.

Wesson had hoped to collect his diploma in person this month, but a speaking engagement got in the way. So he plans to celebrate his milestone at the next reunion of Lincoln's Class of 1974. It was his class before, and now, degree in hand, it's his class once again.

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