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The house of David

In this age of free agency, in this world where we're all supposed to have three or four (or more) careers in a lifetime, there is the story of David Sargent.

Sunday is graduation day at Suffolk University, in this, its 100th year. Sargent, its president, is now incredibly in his 50th year at the downtown school -- or 55 years if you start the clock from the day he walked into the place as a law student when Harry Truman was in the White House. "I feel like I am the luckiest guy in the world," says the low-profile Sargent, one the city's genuine nice guys.

Suffolk will forever be overshadowed in a town that has Harvard and MIT, Boston College and Boston University, Tufts and Northeastern. We are a city rich in higher education, our single greatest competitive advantage, and all the students we so love to hate are our most important renewable resource, economically, culturally, and socially. Suffolk is very much part of Boston's "Education Necklace" we are blessed to have.

Suffolk does not have the cachet of its in-town competitors, but none has a leader who so thoroughly personifies its mission. Dave Sargent came to Suffolk all those years ago as a poor boy, the first in his family to go to college. His dad was a small-town New Hampshire cop. His grandfather started working in the timber camps at age 5, fetching kindling from the woods for the camp cooks. He never did learn to read or write his name.

"When I came here, a long time ago from New Hampshire, I really was an outsider, a foreigner," Sargent says. "Everyone else lived within five miles of Boston."

Sargent and this place he loves have quite literally grown up together. After graduating, he started practicing law and working as a part-time instructor in the law school. He joined the faculty in 1957, became the dean of the law school in 1972 and president of the university in 1989.

The law school tuition was $400 a year when Sargent came here; today it is $35,000. Much else has changed, too, but what has not changed, Sargent insists, is the mission. Suffolk was started in the Roxbury parlor of lawyer Gleason L. Archer as a night law school for those, mainly the Irish, who couldn't get into Harvard and BU. Sargent thinks that very ethic is what still distinguishes Suffolk.

"All we care about is that everyone is a serious student, and they are respectful toward people who might be very different from themselves," he says.

Nothing so perfectly expresses how Sargent has grown, and grown the Suffolk mission, than the campus he launched in Senegal a decade ago. Today, about 75 new students a year enroll in the West African program, and many of them end up at Suffolk or other American universities. "It is the most satisfying thing I have done in 50 years in education," he says.

Sargent's biggest concern is keeping the place affordable for the kid from the blue-collar family that Suffolk was invented to educate. Finding dorms for Suffolk's expanding enrollment -- 8,500 now, probably 10,000 in a decade -- is another challenge. Witness the bruising, losing fight Suffolk recently had with its Beacon Hill neighbors.

At 75, Sargent has no retirement plans; he signed a new five-year contract in December. Says Max Koskoff, who graduates Sunday and just stepped down as head of Suffolk's student government: "He is a great life force for the university. This is his passion."

Life is often a series of accidents, good and bad. Sargent appreciates how lucky he was to have stumbled into his life's work so early. It's worked out well for thousands of kids like him who followed.

Steve Bailey is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at bailey@globe.com or at 617-929-2902.

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