It's clear that Sudden Valley resident Thomas Hall is not your typical bachelor's degree graduate.
To begin with, he's 91 years old.
Hall plans to attend commencement May 30 at Harvard University. He says he's the oldest person to graduate from Harvard. University officials didn't reply to confirm that, but at his age, Hall certainly must be in the running.
Don't think that because Hall is now receiving his bachelor's degree that he's a latecomer to higher education. Far from it.
In an odd twist, this will be Hall's second graduation from Harvard. In 1949, he graduated from Harvard Medical School, magna cum laude.
SCHOOL, PRISON, MORE SCHOOL
Like many people of his generation, Hall's schooling was interrupted by World War II. Unlike many of his generation, Hall didn't leave the classroom to take up arms. Instead, as a pacifist, he refused to register for the military, so he served 13 months in prison.
At one point, he worked in a prison hospital in Ohio, where he saw inmates receive a new treatment for syphilis.
"I came back knowing I wanted to go into medical school," he said.
Hall grew up poor in New York City. He father worked as a janitor. His mother, a telephone company supervisor, died when he was a child. To help support his family, he landed a job after he graduated from high school at the age of 15.
"If you could get out faster, everybody felt that was good," Hall said.
While working, he took college classes at night. After his college entrance exams, he won a $400 scholarship to attend Harvard.
He was delivering the New York Times when the newspaper headlined the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Everyone's life changed, including his.
After his parole from prison, Hall went back to work, and took more classes at Harvard to enter medical school. Upon graduation, Hall began his long career of medical research; teaching, including nearly 20 years at Harvard Medical School; practicing oncology; founding and directing cancer care centers; and writing more than 200 scientific articles and nine medical books or monographs.
His career has included teaching, hospital or administrative posts in Massachusetts, New York, California, Hawaii, New Jersey, Vancouver, B.C., and in Bellingham, at St. Joseph hospital, after he moved to Whatcom County in the early 1990s. He was perhaps the first medical oncologist in Whatcom County, and while in Bellingham he organized a massive prostate cancer study.
Over the years he has overseen numerous grants through the American Cancer Society, earning the title of emeritus life research professor.
Despite his many academic and professional accomplishments, Hall decided to finish his undergraduate degree after he became interested in the proposed coal export terminal at Cherry Point and, related to that, the role of corporations.
His studies at Harvard in the early '40s, plus classes he took while teaching medicine, left him four courses shy of his bachelor's degree. By doing his homework on computer and visiting his professors twice a semester, he completed his coursework, including the history of corporations, in early January for his bachelor's, with a concentration in biochemistry.
"I like to have a sense of things that are finished," Hall said.
QUIET MAN, FIRM BELIEFS
As noteworthy as his accomplishment is the way he has lived his life. Hall calls himself a "religious socialist," and regardless whether you agree with his views, he put his beliefs into practice.
While in prison, he stood in the chow line for black inmates to protest racial segregation behind bars. While director of a cancer program in British Columbia, he joined picketers lobbying for higher wages for the program's workers.
At home, Hall sometime wears a "war is not the answer" button from the Friends Committee on National Legislation, the public interest lobby of the Religious Society of Friends, the Quakers.
A crisp dresser, Hall is soft-spoken and polite. Raised Catholic, once a Methodist, now a Quaker, he values faith that offers guidance on how to lead a moral life in the here and now.
"There should be no inconsistency between what you say and what you do," Hall said.
In the mid-90s, Carol Brumet, program coordinator at the new PeaceHealth St. Joseph Cancer Center, saw how Hall treated other people. At the time Brumet was new to medicine as executive director for the American Cancer Society in Whatcom, Skagit and Island counties. Her office was next to Hall's.
"He took it upon himself to mentor me," Brumet said. "He's the nicest, most gentlemanly person in the world."
Several times a month, Brumet said, Hall bought chocolates or other treats to deliver personally to every employee in the cancer center. Hall never boasted about his accomplishments, she said, and never faulted other people who didn't share his views.
"He was a kind individual," Brumet said. "I don't think there's a person in the world who doesn't think he's a good soul."
Reach Dean Kahn at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 715-2291.