University of Pittsburgh
April 19, 2004

Retired University of Pittsburgh Maintenance Worker, Chauffer Earns Degree April 25 after Decades of Study

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PITTSBURGH—On a damp April morning, Victor Zavolas is on his way to University of Pittsburgh's Alumni Hall to be fitted for his cap and gown. He's waited 55 years for the chance to get his college degree, and he is not going to miss commencement.

Zavolas, 76, is graduating April 25 from Pitt's College of General Studies with the Bachelor of Arts degree in political science. He's taken courses since he started working at Pitt in 1983 doing maintenance at the chancellor's official residence on Devonshire Street in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh. He retired four years ago but continued to work toward the degree. This spring, he finished a class that fulfilled his final three credits in science.

"The class is called Myth, Magic, Medicine," Zavolas explains. "It's more like a philosophy course: a lot of Plato, a lot of 'What is really real?'"

Most of Zavolas' course work has been more grounded in fact—political science and law. Genuine interest, not just perseverance, kept him in the classroom. "I enjoy it," he says. "I love politics—national politics, local politics. I've followed politics all my life."

Honorably discharged as a sergeant from the U.S. army in 1948 after serving with the occupation force in Japan, Zavolas went straight to work and missed out on taking advantage of the 42 months of education benefits that were available to returning soldiers under the G.I. Bill.

"I tried to sign up at Pitt, but they said I was deficient in math," Zavolas says. "I would have had to go back for two years of high school to make up the math. After being an army sergeant, I wasn't going back to high school with those kids.

Zavolas worked for 30 years in the shipping and receiving department of Continental Can Company until the company went out of business, in 1981. At 55, the energetic bantamweight worker felt he was too young to retire. After more than a year of unemployment, he came to work at Pitt. Pitt's tuition benefit for employees gave Zavolas an unexpected opportunity. He soon started taking classes.

"I thought I couldn't keep up with new students, but I could," Zavolas says. Rather than being out of place in classes with much younger people, he felt right at home. "The young people didn't give me a second look.

Zavolas laughs about a professor who would turn to him in class to answer questions about events in the 1930s and '40s. "Then he hit me with a question about 1916," Zavolas recalls. "'Hey,' I said, 'I'm not that old.'"

Throughout his 17 years working at Pitt, Zavolas performed daily maintenance at the chancellor's official residence and occasionally chauffeured during the administrations of three different chancellors. He fondly recalls working at the residence after current Pitt Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg took over the reins of the University nearly nine years ago. "He knows your name," Zavolas says. "He greets you on campus and treats you like a human being."

Asked about his future plans, Zavolas laughs. "All I want is to hang that sheepskin on my living room wall. My wife, Louise, is glad I'm graduating. She says 'You spend too much time with your books.'"

Zavolas' family has many Pitt connections. Daughter Diane Schuster works in Pitt's Office of Facilities Management and his son, Michael, studied computer engineering at Pitt's regional campus in Bradford, Pa., while his father worked for the University. Calling recently from his home in Florida, Michael joked with his father that it was now time to get a Ph.D. Louise Zavolas didn't think it was funny. Zavolas laughs, "She told me I better not go for my doctorate."

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