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Four journeys back to school

After disaster, fisherman finds education, new life

GLOUCESTER -- Joe Marcantonio's career as a commercial fisherman ended abruptly in 2001 when a Russian oil tanker plowed into his 95-foot herring boat and killed everyone on board except him.

After nearly two years of therapy, Marcantonio decided to enter college and find a career that would not keep him away from his wife and three children for a week at a time.

Fishing was all he had ever known. After graduating from Gloucester High School in 1983, Marcantonio began fishing with his stepfather. His grandfather was a fisherman. So was his father, who disappeared at sea when Marcantonio was 13.

''One day, he gave me a kiss and said 'See you next week,' and he just never came home," he said. ''I was kind of like a hurt kid who didn't do well in school after that."

After the boat accident, he started taking classes at a community college, waking up around 4:30 a.m. to study before his children got up. Math came easily; writing did not. Marcantonio dug deep into himself to write essays about losing his father and his crew. In five semesters, he earned a 3.9 grade-point average, an associate's degree, and a scholarship to the University of Massachusetts at Boston.

''That fear and mystique of college for me -- I don't want my kids to feel that," Marcantonio said. ''I hear a lot of the young kids saying, 'As long as I pass, as long as I don't have to take this class again . . .' but I want those A's, just like I wanted to be the best fisherman."

In January, he started taking classes at UMass-Boston. Now 39, he has made the dean's list and plans to graduate by December 2006.

''I feel that God just pulled me out of the water for some reason, and now I'm navigating this path through college," he said. ''My life experience has made me a different kind of student. My time on that boat shrank my world. Now my world is growing again."


War cut college short the first time, 60 years ago

When Harvard junior Ralph Pfeiffer heard the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor, he knew his college days were numbered. He just didn't think his return to a campus would take more than 60 years.

At age 21, after his junior year ended, he joined the Coast Guard, where he served stateside until his tour ended in 1944. On a weekend leave a short time before, he had married a nursing student he met while at Harvard. He got a job in corporate sales for an airline, and it wasn't long before the couple's first child was on the way.

The lack of a degree did not slow his career. He saw the world and opened his own travel agency before retiring in 1992. But as he watched his grandchildren receive college degrees, he realized he had unfinished business. He knew that his late father, who worked 12-hour days in a shoe factory during the Depression, would want him to complete his studies.

''He would never have said it, but it was his dream," Pfeiffer said.

In early 2003, at age 82, Pfeiffer enrolled in Framingham State College's continuing education program, usually taking a course at a time once a week for three hours in classes of mostly 20- and 30-somethings.

At times, the age difference mattered. The hill to his lecture hall was steep, and he preferred to write his assignments longhand before typing them in on the computer. Once, he lost his electronic version and had to ask for an extension.

After initial struggles, he excelled, getting two A's and three B's. Two more courses, and he'll walk across the stage next spring as the college's oldest-ever graduate, school officials believe.

Pfeiffer said he believes his hobbies, including gardening, lobster fishing, and oil painting, kept his mind sharp.

''I've always been a student," he said, ''just not in school."


Working mom sacrifices, succeeds

Cramming for exams and working around busy schedules were minor problems as Francia DeJesus-Flores pursued one degree after another.

The major ones: a new language, a marriage and children, and an accident that nearly killed her husband.

At age 17, in 1986, DeJesus-Flores knew barely any English when she came to Cambridge from the Dominican Republic with her father and two sisters and enrolled in high school. Friends were scarce. For three years, she struggled to earn her diploma while cleaning houses part time to help support her family.

''It was frustrating, but I learned the language, enough to manage," said DeJesus-Flores, now 34. ''I lived in the dictionary."

Working job after job, she set out to earn an associate's degree from Bunker Hill Community College. But it took her five years because taking remedial grammar classes slowed her progress. She finished in 1994.

In subsequent years, she married Jose Flores, earned a certificate of child services from a Boston college, found a job in day care, and had two children.

Disaster struck in June 2002 when her husband, driving in pouring rain, hit a pothole and slammed into a tree. He was in a coma for three days. DeJesus-Flores, already caring for the couple's baby and toddler while working, had to help her husband learn how to walk and talk again.

Her husband, a bank teller who was also in the Army Reserves, couldn't work for a year. He received disability payments from the military, but they took a while to arrive, and the bills seemed insurmountable.

Looking for higher pay, DeJesus-Flores enrolled at Cambridge College to get a bachelor's degree. She often studied until 5 a.m., woke up at 7, and finished her homework at work.

''I'd go take a shower, get the kids ready, and keep going," she said.

After two years at Cambridge College, she graduated in June. From a high school diploma to a bachelor's degree, her salary jumped tenfold. Now, she works as the intern coordinator at a day-care center, and her husband is able to work part time.

Her sacrifices, she said, were worth it.

''Oh, please, what I went through," she said. ''If I went through it, I think anybody can go through it."


Laid-off worker discovers a new trade

Richard Catenacci was about a decade away from retirement when the company he worked for announced it was closing its doors.

He had worked as a machinist, producing centrifuges and other products for chemical plants at Bird Machine Co. in Walpole for 31 years. He had just 60 days to figure out what to do before the company closed in October 2003.

Catenacci, now 56, grew up in Medfield, where he still lives, graduated from Medfield High, and enlisted in the Marines after graduation. He served in Vietnam for two years, came home, married about a year later, and ran a gas station.

When the gasoline crisis hit in the late 1970s, he took a job at Bird and became content enough to stay until he retired.

After his company's announcement, Catenacci attended some career education classes.

''Being in your 50s, it's very difficult and scary saying 'OK, what do you do for the rest of your life?' You can't retire," said Catenacci, who has two children and three grandchildren.

In early 2004, he enrolled in a nine-month air-conditioning and appliance repair program at the Bay State School of Technology in Canton.

He hadn't taken a class since high school. By a few years, he was the oldest student in a program that required him to use math and science and memorize information about the workings of small and large appliances, including walk-in coolers.

''I probably studied more than the average person because I wanted to get it so bad," he said.

Last November, Catenacci graduated with a 3.67 grade-point average. He now works for Petrini Management Corporation in Needham, repairing and maintaining heating and cooling systems in industrial buildings and medical complexes.

''I love it," he said. ''I'm faced with a different circumstance every day. It's very rewarding to be able to figure out things and repair them."


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