May 12, 2024

Buehler’s Back in School Where an ‘Old Dog’ is Learning New Tricks

Reporting Texas

The hum of students shuffling across campus. Virtual strangers morphing into familiar faces. It’s the first day of the new semester at the University of Texas.

Bob Buehler begins his walk to his first class, dressed in slightly wrinkled gray khakis and a purple plaid collared shirt. His round glasses sit squarely on the bridge of his nose. He slowly walks to a seat directly in the middle of the crowded room and places his sparsely packed black backpack in front of him. The quiet murmurs of introductions and pleasantries fall over the classroom. The classmate to his right opens with a question, maybe for a name or a pencil.

“Excuse me, are you the professor for this class?” she asks.

Buehler politely corrects her. He’s 76 – and a student.

It’s a typical Monday for Buehler. He makes his 10-minute drive to campus from his apartment, where he lives alone. He heads to his first and only class of the day at 3 p.m. Introduction to Philosophy with Professor Michelle Montague. Buehler raises his hand and answers a question on the boundaries of retributivism. Heads subtly turn like dominoes to match the elderly, raspy voice to the person. He listens intently when the professor speaks. He takes notes delicately, typing slowly, one key at a time. He steadies his hand as it shakes.

In a classroom of about 40, he is the oldest.

“It’s so enjoyable to be around students,” Buehler said. “They’re always laughing, chatting it up. They enjoy life so much. It kind of rubs off.”

Buehler initially started sitting in on classes at the university in the spring of 2017 before deciding he wanted to apply to be an officially enrolled student. Prior to his time at UT, he received his undergraduate degree from Texas Tech with a 2.8 grade point average in his early 20s. Not exactly a stellar student in his youth. His first application was rejected.

It wasn’t until he found College for All Texans, a program that supports adult learners in their educational pursuits, that allowed him to take up to two classes a semester, tuition free.

“I’ve lived in Austin since 1971. I’ve always watched UT sports and been a UT fan,” Buehler said. “I was reading about how as we age and get older, we lose parts of our memory and cognitive abilities. I thought one way to put some brakes on it is learning new things. So I thought, maybe I should go back to school.”

Buehler said his love of education was a discovery he made later in life. His youth was marked by wandering and misdirection, drugs and alcohol, naivety and mistakes. It was college in the 70s. Buehler followed his small group of friends to Texas Tech and his father instructed him to major in business. He had little choice in the matter.

“I didn’t study real hard. I think (my friends and I) did more partying,” Buehler said. “I did some drug use when I was in college. Marijuana and LSD, a couple times. I can’t say much more about my college experience other than I didn’t apply myself.”

Buehler has been taking classes at UT for about seven years now as a way to combat the mental effects of aging after retiring from his administrative technology role at Unix. Scientists recommend mental activities, like games or reading, to compensate for “age-related brain changes,” according to the National Institute on Aging. While some may pick Sudoku or learning a new language, Buehler took it one step further. He said mental stimulation acts as an added bonus to his primary reason for attending UT: his pursuit of learning.

“I’ve always loved learning new stuff. Even if I wasn’t going to school, I’d always be looking stuff up online and learning,” Buehler said.

Buehler is officially listed as a “degree holder, non-degree seeker” in the UT directory. And that’s exactly right — while most come to college to seek out a degree, that’s not the case for Buehler. Buehler seeks knowledge. Community. A new beginning.

Buehler’s nonlinear journey to UT is representative of a somewhat nontraditional experience. Albeit later in life, Buehler said he doesn’t shy from his unique position, but rather embraces it. He wants to enjoy the campus for all it has to offer. Buehler frequents UT sporting events, standing proudly in the student section.

“I bought The Big Ticket the last two or three years,” Buehler said. “It’s actually a cool experience. I like (the rowdiness). Especially if you’re rooting for my team.”

He doesn’t allow his age to prevent him from having the full student experience, from cheering for a touchdown to cramming for a final exam. Madison Williams, his granddaughter and UT alumna, witnessed this firsthand — when they attended the university at the same time.

“He told me he was starting to (take classes) my freshman year of college,” Williams said. “I knew he already had a degree, so I was confused at first. I said, ‘Wait, why are you doing it?’ and he said, ‘Just to learn.’ That wasn’t surprising, because my grandpa loves that.”

Madison said they’d frequently study together at Starbucks, grab a quick bite to eat and even stop by for a quick drink at UT’s famous college bar, Cain & Abel’s.

One day they were at lunch and she posted a picture of him. Williams said she had three best friends who worked at Cain & Abel’s, and they asked her why she was at lunch with Bob.  “What are you talking about?” she asked. “That’s my grandpa.”

To her surprise, her grandfather was the dive bar’s popular regular.

“‘We love your grandpa!’” Williams’ friends told her. “‘He comes to Cain & Abel’s all the time and orders a 512 beer with a glass cup. We always give it to him for free.’”

Williams said Buehler always encouraged her to try everything once, and, because of that, lives her life more receptively and openly. She recited fond memories of Buehler taking her to her first Austin City Limits Music Festival or sharing their favorite music with one another.

“I don’t think (Buehler) has ever said, ‘I’m too old for that.’ If he’s a nontraditional student, he’s also a nontraditional grandpa,” Williams said.

Of the student population at UT, only 2.7% of students make up the age demographic of 35 years and older. Buehler said he wishes more people his age would consider going back to school. He said he is surprised at how often he ends up being the oldest person in the classroom.

“It’s very inspiring to see someone start something new like that,” said Michelle Montague, Buehler’s philosophy professor. “It shows people that there are different avenues you can take in life and still succeed. And Bob is succeeding. He’s doing well in my class, getting A’s on papers and exams.”

Buehler strives to excel in his classes, far from the picture of his youth –  although this time, his age often proves to be an added challenge. He has taken a variety of courses at UT, ranging from “Intro to Islam” to “Intro to Astronomy.”

Despite the obstacles he faces, he is determined to do well in his courses and defy expectations brought on to him by age.

“I’m a perfectionist. I feel highly motivated to make an A. I have to study ten times as hard as other students do because my brain doesn’t work as well,” Buehler said. “(It takes courage) because it’s a challenge. When you get older, you’re probably thinking you can’t measure up to the standards of younger people.”

Buehler slowly closes his laptop and packs up his things. The chatter of the students around him swallows the classroom at the professor’s dismissal. Buehler says a friendly goodbye to the classmate that sits to his right.

“Bye June! I’ll see you Wednesday,” Buehler said.

Students usher themselves quickly out of the lecture in a hurry to make it to their next class or maybe lunch with their friends.

Buehler is the last to leave the room.

Buehler encourages everyone to approach life with open arms. He wants to remind young people that, despite what the old adage says, you can teach an old dog new tricks — that even a well-worn book can find room for a new chapter.

“Be open-minded,” Buehler said. “Try to learn new things. Expand your knowledge. I think it’s important to learn as much as you can.”