by Gary Leftwich
Bill Headley doesn't need a college degree. He just wants one.
The retired construction contractor—who will graduate May 11 from the University of West Georgia with a degree in real estate—looks forward to completing a quest he started 60 years ago.
“My motivation to get a degree is to prove to myself that I can do it,” said Headley, who will turn 82 two weeks after graduating. “It shows that one has completed a task. What one does with the knowledge they acquire is what is really important.”
With a natural talent for drafting, Headley enrolled at Auburn University in his early 20s, working to follow in his father's footsteps as a civil engineer. A self-described poor student, he "flunked out" of Auburn in 1957 and joined the U.S. Army as a paratrooper.
After serving his country, Headley jumped into the construction business, landing in Newnan, Ga. While living in New York City, he and his wife, Anita, had fallen in love with the Atlanta suburb known for its stately antebellum homes.
“Georgia was always high on the list,” Headley reflected in an article for his 25th anniversary as president of Headley Construction. “When driving to the airport we used to kid, ‘One of these days, we’ll just live in one of these old houses in Newnan.’”
As the family—including the Headleys' three sons—settled into its new home in Newnan, Headley himself set up shop in 1971, operating Headley Construction from the house. Soon after, the couple welcomed a fourth son.
Today, Headley Construction operates in Georgia, Alabama and the Carolinas. In addition to erecting schools, churches, libraries and office buildings, the company has managed the careful renovation of the 1904 Coweta County Courthouse and Newnan's Carnegie Library.
Headley's ties with the University of West Georgia run deep. His company completed the renovation of UWG’s Campus Planning and Facilities building and the exterior plaza of its University Campus Center. Closer to home, Headley Construction managed the renovation of the historic Newnan Hospital building, which houses UWG Newnan. Designers took great care to keep many of the former hospital's unique features, including an exclusive doctor's stairwell, period tile flooring and operating lights which provide illumination for students.
At age 62, Headley retired from construction as his sons took over managing the family business. Aside from the time spent in real estate, he has earned a pilot's license and hiked the Appalachian Trail.
While sitting at home watching television one night, Headley got to thinking about his college days and his less-than-stellar grades. It was then he decided one is never too old to go back to school. So, he enrolled at the University of West Georgia and began taking classes at UWG Newnan.
“I felt bad that I had not earned a college degree,” he said. “That feeling of failure was deep within my mind, having disappointed my family and wasted time and money.
“With Newnan, my chosen home, having a campus, opportunity was knocking on my door and I decided to do something about it,” he added. “I talked to my best friend and wife of 56 years and, with her 100-percent support, I started my new college career.”
Headley majored in real estate through UWG’s Richards College of Business, a perfect choice for someone who stays busy managing several properties he owns.
“I have learned that there is so much to learn and my knowledge was limited,” Headley said. “I took astronomy and really enjoyed learning about our universe. I've learned how to think in-depth about different subjects and how to better express myself. Learning is a joy.”
As he walks with the class of 2017 at UWG's spring commencement, Headley will proudly share the stage with classmates he truly admires.
“My greatest encouragement comes my fellow students, who showed the upmost respect,” he said of his millennial classmates. “They are trained in technology beyond my imagination and, on most parts, are well-mannered. They are more respectful than my generation. I believe our world will be in good hands.”
Even with all of his personal and business success, Headley believes learning has no limits.
“Technology has changed for the better, although I feel very comfortable with my slide rule,” he said. “The computer is great. We enjoy a global connection with the transferring of information fast. The teachers and instructors are better and interested in the student learning, rather than just presenting the material.”
As one who flunked out originally, Headley says there’s no acceptable excuse to fail. All it takes to succeed is hard work and commitment.
“I would advise a student who was considering leaving school to stay the course and take advantage of the opportunity at hand,” Headley said. “Time goes by so very fast and opportunities pass and rarely occur a second time.”
He offers the same advice to his fellow seniors, letting them know a college degree doesn't cost a single cent for those of retirement age.
"At 81 years old, I have become a better speller, a better communicator, more familiar with my computer and a more rounded businessman,” Headley said with pride. “What most folks don’t know is that this a college degree is free for people over 65 years old.”
Free or not, don't expect Headley to return the classroom anytime soon, though he says will remain involved with his new alma mater.
“Don't look for me to go for any other degrees,” he said with a laugh. “But, I definitely plan to be involved as a UWG alumnus.”Posted on