After 53-year wait, alumnus will finally walk at Illinois graduation


Meg Dickinson, ECE ILLINOIS

Growing up on the south side of Chicago and attending the vocational Dunbar High School, George Nelms (BSEE '62) never expected he’d attend college. He thought he’d end up working as a TV repairman.

Instead, Nelms took a less-than-straightforward path through undergraduate education, finally earning a degree in electrical engineering in 1962 from the University of Illinois. That path, though, didn’t allow him to participate in Illinois’ graduation ceremony, even though it prepared him for a successful, diverse career in engineering.

Throughout that career, though, Nelms felt something was missing – the chance to walk across the stage in a cap and gown, and receive his diploma. He’ll have that opportunity in mid-May, when he arrives on campus to finally participate in Engineering at Illinois’ graduation ceremony.

“I thought that ship had sailed,” he said, adding that he believes participating will give him closure.

Growing up, college had never been a part of Nelms’ plan. To impress the parents of a young lady, though, he enrolled in the University of Illinois at Chicago, then located at Navy Pier. He also attended Woodrow Wilson Junior College and the Illinois Institute of Technology in the late 1950s.

“I decided to hunker down,” Nelms said. “School soon became more important than the young lady.”

He had to work in order to pay tuition, including a night shift at Michael Reese Hospital, on the Rock Island Railroad, and at Hoffman Semiconductor doing quality control, where he earned what he realized was a generous salary. He realized he might be at a competitive disadvantage in the job market because he was African-American. He soon understood that education would be the key to his future success.

In 1960, he transferred to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to study electrical engineering. He excelled in his graduate-level math classes and, as a senior, was recruited to work at RCA in New Jersey. Nelms thrived in subjects related to math and science.

Unfortunately, he’d never focused on college prep in high school, and couldn’t pass Rhetoric 200, a general education requirement, despite taking it every semester.

“Math is logical,” Nelms said. “English is not. I could never seem to get it right.”

It happened again during his final semester, which meant Nelms couldn’t walk in his class graduation ceremonies. He had to decide: would he stay at Illinois and try to pass? Or would he head back to Chicago, giving up his dream to become an engineer? He’d become a role model within his family, but also within his community and he didn’t want to disappoint those who were counting on him.

“I never felt as low as I did then,” he said.

He stayed behind for summer school in 1962 and finally passed rhetoric before heading to RCA.

“That summer, I worked and worked,” he said, and his instructor knew how important it was for him to pass. “He let me know what I was doing wrong.”

Nelms took the job at RCA, working on satellite energy systems. He then went on to work in weapons systems at Honeywell, on pacemakers at Medtronic, in microprocessor and chip-handling systems, and even lab automation. He’s also done international consulting in technology and business development after retiring.

Young engineer George Nelms, right, and lab technician Bud Patton working at Medtronic.
Young engineer George Nelms, right, and lab technician Bud Patton working at Medtronic.

Nelms, now 76 and a Scottsdale, Ariz., resident, feels his Illinois degree provided him the tools he needed not just to work as an engineer, but to understand his own learning style and to develop his ability to learn new skills in order to reinvent himself along the way.

“Illinois gave me the tools, and I was able to use them to work in several different industries,” he said.

Nelms said he believes he’s lived the American dream, and he hopes he can inspire other students, especially those who are members of under-represented populations, to stick with college to earn their degrees, and to go on to success.

“I believe I’ve been in the right place, at the right time, with the right tools,” he said.

His journey back to campus began this February, when Nelms attended an Illinois alumni event in Phoenix. There, Nelms saw a 2014 graduation video that flooded him with memories of having missed walking across the stage with his classmates 53 years ago.

He realized the disappointment lingered: his family, including his parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles weren’t able to experience the joy and pride in this event. However, some family members and friends from Chicago will join him on campus and attend the ceremony this month.

“I was the first in my family to attend college, and the family I wanted most to share in this event are no longer here,” Nelms said, “but I am so grateful the University of Illinois is allowing me the privilege I missed.”