Freddie Sherill, a fresh college graduate at 65, spent half his life unable to read.
He quit school at age 8, found himself behind bars by age 16 and became homeless at 27, as North Carolina’s WBTV reports, falling into a cycle of drugs and alcohol that led to a suicide attempt years later. Decades of recovery, determination and support after that culminated with a bachelor’s degree from Charlotte’s Queens University this year.
He did it all — the G.E.D., which he passed by a point on his sixth try, and the associates degree, which took him 13 years — to set an example for his children.
“Finally, today I can say that I’m a productive member of society,” Sherill told the station. “I haven’t arrived, you know. That’s just part of the journey, and the journey continues on.”
Sherill grew up impoverished and without knowing his father, according to the Charlotte Observer, falling into peer pressure that led to purse-snatching and car theft punctuated by prison time at age 16. That set off two decades of drug and alcohol abuse that found him homeless in his late thirties, the newspaper reported, with Sherrill smashing store windows on cold nights so that he could warm up in a jail.
Sherill tried shooting himself in December of 1988. The gun didn’t go off until he threw it onto the ground. “I wanted to die and couldn’t even do that,” he told the Observer.
After staying at a halfway house in Morganton, North Carolina, Sherill began doing yard work for a couple who introduced him to their pastor, Steve Eason, formerly of the town’s First Presbyterian Church.
The pastor took a chance on Sherill and hired him to work as a groundskeeper, an investment which inspired Sherill to visit a literacy center to learn how to read. He wanted a better life for his wife and five children, Sherill told The Washington Post.
When he took his son to enroll at Queens University, Sherill made a bet with him: The father would enroll, too, and whoever got the best GPA each semester would pay the other $100.
That was eight years ago, the Post reported. And in May, three years after his son finished his degree, Sherill received his in human service studies. He hopes to find a position working with children who are at risk, like he once was, he told the newspaper.