Monday, September 3, 2018

From Curse to Blessing

Don’t you just love those rare instances in which what seems to be a curse turns out to be a blessing? I have only had a few of those in my life. One of them happened at Auburn University half a century ago.

Upon my graduation from Southern State College, Auburn offered me a National Defense Education Act (NDEA) Fellowship that covered three years of study toward the doctor of philosophy. It paid tuition and a modest salary. I wrote the Veterans Administration and told them about the NDEA Fellowship since I was also drawing the G. I. Bill for veterans returning to school and I was aware that it was illegal at that time to receive two kinds of federal benefits.

The VA kept sending the checks, though, and I opened a savings account for the money in case I ever had to pay it back. I called the VA and reminded them of the letter. They found it in their file and thanked me for the reminder. But the checks kept coming. At about the time that bank account had accrued close to $1,000, a lot of money for 1967, the graduate school dean called me in and asked if I were receiving the G.I. Bill money in addition to the NDEA stipend. “Yes, sir, but I notified the VA that I had the fellowship.” He replied that I had not notified him about the G. I. Bill money I was receiving and that I should have. I explained that I did not consider that necessary as long as one party knew. I told him my preference was to keep the NDEA and drop the G. I. Bill.

He told me that there could be penalties involved, and dismissed me with that vague information. Here I am, I thought, trying to get a Ph. D. degree on benefits that came from serving my country and excelling in studies. I notified the VA doing what I thought was right and still and I may go to jail. There was fear as well as self-pity in that thought. That evening at dinner, I told my wife about the visit with the dean and she was equally concerned. Her firm support was a mainstay during that difficult part of the graduate school experience. There at the outset of my advanced studies, I felt as if I were out of my league anyway, but that visit to the dean almost led me to other pursuits.

Well, in a few days the dean called me back in and, in a much kinder voice, said that he had done some research and that the VA sent him a copy of the letter of notification I had, indeed, registered with them. He also said that President Lyndon B. Johnson had the week before signed legislation that cleared the way for vets to receive multiple federal benefits regarding educational issues. Thus, I kept the fellowship, had money in the bank and did not go to jail. The blessing was almost equal to the curse.

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