As he makes history as Central Piedmont Community College’s oldest-ever graduate, Navy veteran Robert Winters is a living witness to three of the nation’s seminal events: World War II, the Korean conflict and the Vietnam War.
Winters, a 90-year-old retired chief petty officer, served his country in all three. He’ll be among CPCC graduates picking up their associates degrees Thursday at Bojangles Coliseum.
Winters shared classrooms with students who are his age when he quit school in Pennsylvania and enlisted in 1944 as a Navy cook.
“He was a great student,” said Rocyeun Kim, Winters’ teacher in an art appreciation class this semester. “When he shared that when he was 17 years old he was in World War II, the students were kind of amazed.”
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Winters joined his father, an aunt, two uncles and a brother-in-law in the war. All but his brother-in-law, who was killed in a Japanese kamikaze attack, survived it.
He went on to serve for 25 1/2 years in the Navy, ending his duty afloat ferrying bombs and ammunition to ships off the coast of Vietnam. He visited many countries and “enjoyed everything.”
After his retirement, Winters worked in restaurants before enrolling at Purdue University. He studied for more than three years but left without a degree because his GI Bill benefits abruptly ended. He moved to Charlotte in 1980 and continued to work in restaurants.
He met his current wife, Elizabeth, 88, a retired registered nurse, through the Observer’s old “Connect” feature. “We went on one date and we’ve been together since then,” he said.
Married in 1998, they have between them 13 grandchildren, 17 great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren. His wife graduated CPCC in 1973 and UNCC in 1986.
Two of Winters’ daughters, from Maryland and Georgia, will be among relatives attending the graduation ceremony Thursday.
In 2010, he recalled, his wife said, “ ‘Why don’t you go back to school?’ And I said, that sounds all right to me.”
So the two of them became regular students together, taking courses in Spanish, French, art, geology and other subjects.
“We enjoyed it,” Winters said, sometimes spending time over dinner with students and teachers.
Young students, he said, were “great – that’s the best I can say. The young guys always have nice things to say, and the young girls too. We’re known to have threatened to adopt some of them.”
Winters said he’s in good health and plans to keep learning despite his degree. His wife has already signed them up for a humanities course.
“My (physician) said, why waste time coming to see me? You’re getting too old to get sick.”
Researcher Maria David contributed.