The program for Cleveland State Community College’s 2015 commencement exercises Saturday morning listed more than 400 who would receive their degrees and certificates.
It also listed the commencement speaker.
The speaker had no idea that before the morning was over, he would join the CSCC graduating class of 2015.
Local businessman Allan Jones was the speaker selected to inspire the graduates to take advantage of this opportunity, and go on to bigger and better things.
Ten of those graduates were there because of Jones’ sponsorship of the “Bradley Achieves” program which gives every Bradley County high school graduate the opportunity to attend Cleveland State.
“He has been very generous throughout our community and in particular, he has singlehandedly funded our ‘Bradley Achieves’ program,” said CSCC President Dr. Bill Seymour in his introduction of Jones.
Seymour asked the “Bradley Achieves” students to stand and said, with an aside to Jones, “Allan, these are your kids.”
Jones spoke of growing up in Cleveland and Bradley County.
“Congratulations, students,” Jones said. “You have done something I have never done. I am the first speaker I think at Cleveland State to talk to you that actually didn’t graduate.”
Jones spoke of getting scholarship offers from his wrestling career at Cleveland High School, but chose not to engage in the sport at the college level and enrolled at Middle Tennessee State University.
“That lasted from September to October,” Jones said, noting he had gotten married. Though short-lived, he said, the relationship left him a much-loved daughter.
“One year later, we were divorced and I was a single parent raising my daughter,” Jones said. “My dad had emphysema and he owned the credit bureau in Cleveland. Mother wanted me to come back and help him.”
He recalled starting that endeavour on July 1, 1973.
“I was making the best I could of a bad situation,” Jones said. “I was at Cleveland State with a 9-month-old baby I was raising on my own.”
“I would come out here at 8 o’clock in the morning. I was carrying a full load. I would come out here at 6 o’clock after work and I’d stay until 9 o’clock. Then, I would go to my mother’s house and pick up [my daughter] Courtney,” he recalled. “The next morning, it would all start again.”
He told the students that life doesn’t always turn out as planned.
“When I was at MTSU, they said to look to your right and to your left — one of you will not graduate,” Jones said. “I never dreamed that would be me. If you know anything about me, I do not quit and I do not give up.”
He said there was a day when he did not leave his desk at the office to attend classes.
“I hope that doesn’t happen to you,” Jones said.
“The good news is, according to the statistics, you have outdone 72 percent of the people in this room,” Jones said. “You are on a great start.”
Jones said when the students turn 30, “Something magical is going to happen to you. People are going to start paying attention to you.”
“At age 40, something really neat happens then — 15 years from today,” he said. “Mark my words and take this to the bank. You will be in charge of this community.”
Jones told of his birth being the first at Bradley Memorial Hospital and having the first cellphone in Cleveland.
“The only place I could use it was on the hill, pointed to Chattanooga and standing on my tip-toes,” he said. “That’s how far we’ve come in such a short period of time.”
He said the Class of 2015 has grown up in the most “incredible time I can remember.”
“I’ve never witnessed a financial meltdown like we had,” Jones said. “I never dreamed that one day when I became successful I would be attacked for being ‘the top 1 percent.’ It never entered my mind. Attacking the ‘top 1 percent’ is like attacking the valedictorian at the high school for being the best student.”
Jones said he has also learned this generation is “the most risk-averse group so far.”
“When I came out here, I drove past hundreds of small businesses to get here. I passed one government office on the way out here — the Tennessee driver’s license bureau,” he said.
He noted entrepreneurship is at an all-time low.
“If we have 200 students here today, that mean seven of you will own your own business,” Jones said. “We have got to turn that around.”
“I have to talk you into taking a risk, turn that around and become an entrepreneur,” he said. “If you want to work in a government office for the IRS, sit in a cubicle and change the world from that cubicle making $35,000 a year, you have another thing coming.”
He said in the wake of all they can potentially do, “You create millionaires behind you and you will have done something.”
Jones also said high students loans are “a dangerous situation.”
“You guys today have the best deal in education you can possibly get right here, because whatever student loans you come out with, you’re coming out cheaper than anybody else,” Jones said.
He said making the wrong decisions about student debt will prevent the students from being able to have purchasing power.
“There’s a lot of apartments going up all over town, but no houses,” Jones said.
He returned to the theme of life not always going as planned.
“I never thought I wouldn’t have a college degree. I never thought I would be divorced. I never thought about that,” Jones said. “In 1983 I met my wife, Janie. We have been married 32 years. She is a wonderful person. It’s very important you find somebody like that. It is amazing to be married to someone for 32 years and still feel the way I feel about her. I hope you will be able to accomplish that, too.”
Jones said he never missed any of his childrens’ activities.
“I suggest you do that, too,” he said in closing. “If you go to every single event they have, they will appreciate it.”
He also told the students the biggest “momentum occasion” will happen when they first experience the death of a parent.
“That’s going to be a big moment in your life,” Jones said. “At your parent’s funeral I guarantee one thing, you will remember everybody that came to the funeral. I hope you pay the respect and do the same for them.”
At the close of Jones’ remarks, Seymour stopped him from taking his seat.
“Allan, at the start of your speech you mentioned they were accomplishing something today you have never accomplished — receiving a degree,” Seymour said. “I want you to know that is going to change right now.
“The Tennessee Board of Regents authorizes the awarding of honorary degrees to recognize individuals with extraordinary achievements and have set a standard that distinguishes them and benefits TBR institutions and the communities they serve, as well as society,” Seymour said.
“We believe you indeed are one of those special people and we are presenting you today an honorary degree from Cleveland State Community College — the first of which Cleveland State has ever presented.”
Seymour was joined by CSCC Vice President for Academic Affairs Dr. Denise King and Tennessee Board of Regents member Thomas Griscom to place the regalia and cap on Jones.
“With the power invested in me by the Tennessee Board of Regents and the state of Tennessee, and upon recommendation by the faculty and staff selection committee and the adminstration of Cleveland State Community College, you are hereby awarded an Honorary Associate Degree for business and entrepreneurship, with all the rights and privileges pertaining thereto,” Seymour said.
Jones received the diploma — acknowledging the applause of the crowd and obviously surprised.
Those closer to him could see Jones’ eyes gaining moisture as his face became one of a silent but distinct emotion, having achieved that which, just moments before, he had spoken of regretting never having accomplished.
He returned to his seat and appeared to not be able to take his eyes off of the sheepskin which was now his.
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