Leland Stephens was so eager for what was about to happen to him this weekend that he had trouble sleeping for days.
“I am so excited I’m about to burst wide open,” the 86-year-old Monroe Baptist minister told the Observer recently.
On Saturday, Stephens stepped across a stage as Wingate University’s oldest graduate – more than a half-century after he got an associate of arts diploma from Wingate Junior College.
Seconds into Saturday morning’s ceremony, the crowd stood and erupted in applause as Luther Moore, chairman of Wingate’s Board of Trustees, shocked Stephens by naming him as the school’s oldest graduate. Stephens stood up, turned around and waved as many hollered in support.
“It blew me away,” Stephens said later Saturday. “From that point on, I didn’t remember anything. They were standing and applauding and hollering like somebody had just scored a touchdown in the Super Bowl.”
Stephens was suddenly a celebrity among the 219 students who received diplomas at Wingate’s inaugural fall commencement exercises, “embarrassing” as it was, he said with a laugh.
Stephens took two years and three months of night classes in Wingate’s adult bachelor degree program at its Ballantyne campus. He majored in organizational communication and management, and on Saturday received his bachelor of liberal studies degree.
Stephens wanted to complete his degree for decades. “It was always in the back of my mind to do it,” he said. “But the years just went by really fast” raising a family and for 30 years never taking a vacation as a pastor and interim pastor at churches in Charlotte and the region.
Stephens said he was born into extreme poverty in 1930 during the Great Depression, in a cotton mill village in Easley, S.C., where his family was called “lint heads.”
“I was born in the same room as three brothers and a sister, and my grandmother delivered all five of us,” he said.
When he was 8, his father switched to sharecropping on an Easley farm, and Stephens and his siblings worked dawn to dusk, Sundays, too.
They raised cotton, corn, wheat and barley in fields, grew vegetables in a garden and collected eggs from their hens. They hauled their produce on a wagon pulled by a horse named Pearl to a market in a mill village each Saturday.
Stephens said he became a Christian on his 26th birthday, and six months later “the Lord called me to preach.”
He served 23 years at the former Grace Baptist Church off The Plaza, 10 years at Oakhurst Baptist on Monroe Road and at other churches over the decades.
In the early 1960s, after getting his associate degree from Wingate and while working as a minister, he drove daily to Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem for a semester to continue his studies. But his car broke down, and with a wife and two small children, he put schooling to the side.
He officially retired from the ministry in 1992 but continued as an interim pastor, including at Sharon Baptist Church in SouthPark and HollyHunter Church on Mount Holly-Huntersville Road. Last Sunday, he preached at Southside Baptist Church in Lincolnton.
Stephens said he’d lived a full life but felt something was missing. “The years kept passing by,” he said. “So I told (wife) Bonnie, ‘I’m going to finish the job. I’m going to get that bachelor’s degree.’ ”
He attended Wingate at the same time two of his great-grandchildren are taking classes at UNC Charlotte. In all, Stephens has two children, four grandchildren, nine great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren.
Because of his first-hand experience with most lessons in the textbooks, Stephens said, his classmates nicknamed him, “I was there.” He loved the rapport they developed.
His advice to anyone considering returning for a degree: “Go for it. You can do it. If I can, at my age, you can do it.”
He said he doesn’t feel 86 – he turns 87 on April 21. “God’s been good to me,” said Stephens, who remains in good health. “I’m just a lint head, an old country boy. It’s been a wonderful life. I’m sure the best is yet to come.”