NEW ORLEANS — Only half the Held family knew that dad, Ron Held, 68, was going to graduate from the University of New Orleans on the same day as his son Ryan Held, 28, prior Saturday’s commencement ceremony.
For both of the Held graduates, various life circumstances interrupted their college careers. For Ryan Held, it was Hurricane Katrina. For Ron Held, it was a 50-year stretch that started by academic probation and was followed by getting drafted, finding jobs and raising a family.
The three older Held siblings made the trip home for their brother Ryan Held’s graduation and knew that their dad had been taking classes but had no idea that he also would be walking across the stage Saturday, mom Leah Held said.
When Leah Held pushed her husband to graduate at the same time, Ron Held said his first thought was, “Have you lost your mind?” Ron Held said all his other children had gotten their “day in the sun,” and that he didn’t want to take anything away from his son’s day. But Ryan Held said he didn’t mind at all.
Ron Held’s studies at UNO began in 1963, fresh out of St. Aloysious High School. In 1965, he was put on academic probation. Held said that when the dean initially told students they just had to make it through their freshmen year and the rest would be a breeze, he put a little too much faith in that advice and put too little time into his studies. In addition, Ron Held said he spent too much time chasing girls and drinking beer, “doing what college students do.”
While he was sitting a semester out, Ron Held received a draft notice for Vietnam. He decided to join the National Guard, where he served for a few years before finding a job selling life insurance.
On Feb. 14, 1969, Ron Held went on a blind date and met his future wife, Leah.
It was supposed to be a double date, he said, but the other couple got into an argument and didn’t show up. Leah and Ron Held joked about the date — recalling how Ron Held fell asleep during the opening credits of the movie “The Shoes of the Fisherman,” and slept for the duration before going out to dinner at Beef Baron on Canal Street.
After they had their first son in 1971, Ron Held said his wife, a school teacher, encouraged him to return to school so he could pursue his goal of obtaining a degree in accounting. In 1972, Ron Held returned to UNO but was inspired by a history professor to change his major.
For two years, he was a full-time student, working part-time jobs at an accounting office and driving around their Mid-City neighborhood with his wife and baby collecting recycled newspapers and magazines, selling every 100 pounds for $1.15.
Ron Held achieved senior status, but when a good job opened up with the National Guard, he took it.
He tried to take classes part-time and at night, but with a full-time job and a growing family, he eventually decided to drop out so that he could focus more of his time on his four children.
After retiring from the National Guard in 1989, Ron Held went to work in computer operations for a hospital until he retired five years ago. The last class he took at UNO was in 1992.
But in the spring of 2012, Leah and Ryan Held persuaded Dad to look into completing his degree. Ron Held found out he needed just 12 credit hours, including two history classes, a biology class and three semesters of a foreign language, to graduate.
He chose Latin, which ended up a bigger challenge than he anticipated and required hiring a tutor and spending close to 30 hours a week studying during the fall.
There were a lot of changes at UNO in five decades, Ron Held said, but the younger students were receptive to having “an old guy in their class.” Held reminisced about his beginning days at the school, taking the bus to the end of Elysian Fields Avenue and walking to the campus on shell roads.
Leah and Ron Held’s youngest son Ryan began his studies at UNO in 2002 after graduating from Brother Martin High School.
When the family’s Metairie home took on 3 feet of water after the levees failed during Katrina, Ryan Held spent time living on the north shore with relatives and in Belle Chasse.
He continued taking classes part-time while working at a golf shop and took a six-month hiatus to work full-time on a dock in Venice.
Finding it was not the right fit for him, Ryan Held went back to working at a different golf shop and taking one or two classes per semester either at night or online. On Saturday, the younger Held graduated with a degree in business administration.
Finally getting his degree in history was “very relieving,” the elder Held said. “It was a challenge, but I really enjoyed it and learned a lot.”
Ron Held said he felt a bit like he was in grammar school, with his wife always there to make sure he did his homework.
However, even as a recent college graduate, Ron Held said, “No one has to worry about me taking their job — I’m going to go back to doing what I do best — being retired.”
The entire family was to celebrate afterward with a party at the Held home — but Dad made it clear that it was a party for his son.