Realizing a dream- Educator becomes a lawyer at 66

By Jo Mathis

Legal News

After a 41-year career as an educator, no one would have blamed John Graves for trading it all in for a leisurely life.

But one night in December of 2008, the Jackson resident was attending a concert in Ann Arbor when he recognized how strongly he still felt about not attending law school there.

He had been registered to attend University of Michigan Law School in 1968, but had withdrawn for financial reasons.

"I don't think there was ever a time I didn't know where that letter of re-admission was," he said. "The prospect of going to law school was a conversation I've had with my wife and with attorneys off and on for years."

He accepted a teaching and coaching job in Grass Lake, intending to go to Michigan Law after establishing Michigan residency. He helped coach a high school football team that went 9-0 that fall, and got hooked.

He loved teaching and coaching, and eventually becoming a principal and then superintendent of four school districts. He also earned a doctorate degree.

But on that night in Ann Arbor, he heard himself tell a stranger that he usually avoids Ann Arbor because of the pull of the law school.

"When I was on campus, the law school was a place I didn't walk because I knew I wanted to be there," he said.

Within a short while, Graves had called the school, confirmed his readmission, and announced his retirement from his job as superintendent of the Jackson County Intermediate School District.

When he entered one of the most prestigious law schools in the country the day after Memorial Day in 2009, he was 63.

One big issue going in: How would he be received by his fellow students?

Not a problem. He enjoyed the time spent with them, and they accepted him.

"I'd been a boss for almost 30 years," he said. "I enjoyed being a student."

"The typical student has been out of school a number of years and had some experience. They'd done some interesting things, and when you're seeing the world from their perspective, it's a young view."

So, no, they didn't make him feel old.

"I already felt old," he said with a laugh. "I didn't have to be reminded of that."

Graves' wife, Marj, was very supportive. And so in order to eliminate the commute, he stayed in a room and then a small apartment near campus three nights a week. He had no TV, and was usually the first person at the student study lounge in the morning.

In some ways, it was easier for him than the other students.

"Compare that to students in their mid twenties who have a whole lot of other things going on in their lives," he said.

Graves never questioned whether he was capable of the work. After all, he'd already been working long hours for many years, and as a superintendent, he was a skilled multi-tasker who knew how to get the jobs done.

"I don't want to minimize how hard law school is," he said. "It was very demanding. But it was doable.

The hardest part was the timed essay exams, because he would walk into a test confident that he had a good hold of the material, and walk out frustrated because he often had much more to write than time allowed.

That left him feeling that he hadn't effectively demonstrated what he had learned.

He thinks it was probably harder for him now than it would have been 40 years ago.

"Even though I've had a computer on my desk since about 1979, I don't type fast," he said. "And many of the tests were issue spotters where there's a scenario, and you spot the issues and then write as much as you can as well as you can. I didn't do that well. I'd spent too many year being very deliberate about things I wrote."

"Probably the most difficult thing was accepting the fact that the major assessment method used in the law school is something I wasn't well equipped to deal with ... There was a time when my academic ego was thoroughly dented."

But he never regretted his decision.

"I knew the study of law would be interesting, but I found it to be even more fascinating than had I thought," he said.

Graves graduated cum laude from Michigan Law in December, took the bar exam in February, learned he had passed two months later, and was sworn in last week as a Michigan attorney.

He didn't allow himself to focus on career plans until he'd passed the bar and taken some time off at his wife's request.

Now he'll be looking for some aspect of the law that most likely will involve education, employment, or dispute resolution. He's also open to other opportunities he hasn't yet considered, and would love to do more graduate level teaching.

Graves is aware that he's never practiced law, and that the years ahead of him to learn and practice are limited.

"I am looking forward to having some opportunities to practice and to all the new learning that will involve," he said. "My professional career to this point has been meaningful and rewarding. I feel blessed to think there can still be more."

At first, Graves didn't want much attention as one of the law school's oldest students ever. (Although the school doesn't keep such records, a spokesman said it's a safe bet.) But then Graves started hearing how his story was motivating others in their 50's and 60's to do things they have dreamed of doing. He especially liked bumping into one of his former ISD employees and finding the person was now attending community college.

"That was very good to hear," he said.

He also found it interesting to learn that the first University of Michigan Law class in 1859 had 24 students, one of whom was named John Graves.

No relation.

These days when Graves goes to Ann Arbor, he has no problem walking through the picturesque Law Quad. After all these years, Graves said he finds it very satisfying to say, "This is my law school."

Published: Thu, Jun 7, 2012