Liz MacLeod of Hilton Head Island seemed to have it all.
She runs two businesses. Her husband, Jim, has a big job at the bank. They live on Calibogue Cay in Sea Pines. She’s a leader in local and statewide philanthropy. She has good friends. And she’s lucky that both her children and their families live in town.
But she felt something was missing in her life.
And the moral of the story is that she did something about it.
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I felt I was the only one who could help myself in this situation.
Two years ago, at age 65, Liz went back to college.
Last month, at 67, with grandchildren cheering, she walked across the stage with a degree from the University of Tampa in Florida.
Her journey to that moment started 49 years ago.
She enrolled at sunny UT sight-unseen, coming from the clouds and cold of New York. On her third day, she met Jim, a New Jersey kid a year ahead of her.
He graduated in 1970, and two weeks later they were married.
Her senior year gave way to a job at the bank, moves for her husband’s career in finance, and rearing two girls, Kim and Leslie.
At one point, Liz supported the family as an interior decorator while Jim got his two master’s degrees, one from Georgia Tech and one from Georgia State University.
Today, Liz is an interior decorator and a Carlisle clothing consultant. And she runs the family convenience store and gas station business, Plantation Station in Sea Pines. She can make your house look like a mansion and your wardrobe look like a million, and she can dip a gas stick.
With a college degree.
Hilton Head came into the picture early on for Jim and Liz. They first came in 1973 to visit his brother, night manager at the Sea Crest Motel.
They looked at each other and said, “One day we’re going to live here.”
Annual vacations to the island always provided a stable factor in their lives. They moved in 15 years ago.
Among other things, Jim is chairman and CEO of CoastalSouth Bancshares Inc., a bank holding company he and other locals founded in 2004. Its subsidiary, CoastalStates Bank, now operates in five states.
It was here that Kim got her first tooth as an infant on vacation. And here that years later Liz was able to help Kim battle breast cancer. And here, she can organize a party that raises $100,000 for one of her main volunteer efforts, serving on the board of the Governors School for the Arts Foundation.
And here, grandchildren buzz around the lively lady they call “Birdie.”
Life was busy. Life was full.
But three years ago, she wondered aloud if she should finish college. Her husband told her not to wish but do something about it. He’s seen her run four businesses in her life. He knew she never quits.
“It was unfinished business,” Liz told me.
Liz never announced at dinner parties that she did not have a degree, but she said you’d be surprised how often degrees come up in conversation.
Jim thinks Liz wanted to go back to college because she felt she somehow cheated herself — and her parents.
It started with a “Maymester” in 2014, when they cram a semester course into a month. She was the only non-traditional student there. A computer gobbled the entire rough draft of her big paper.
Liz said she studied harder in that creative writing class than she did in her entire first three years of college so long ago.
When it was all over, Jim told her he didn’t think she would return after that Maymester. But she did. She rented a small apartment. She studied 10 hours a day. She pulled all-nighters. She wrestled with computers. She studied Irish literature, sociology, race and ethnicity relations. She did an independent study with her new Carlisle clothing business.
And she made all A’s.
It was unfinished business.
Liz came away wondering why a college student would skip a class when each one is so valuable. She observed that today’s students are great with electronic devices but don’t know how to interact.
But the main things that stand out for Liz are how excited graduation made her children and grandchildren. And even though her parents didn’t know about her “scholastic endeavor” when she started, they knew she finally got that degree — even her father, who passed away 10 days before her walk across stage.
There, she received her degree, a hug and a kiss from Jim.
He’s now a board member at the University of Tampa. On this special day, he also received the Alumni Association’s highest award. And he gave the commencement address. Liz was cited as an example of the perseverance the class of 2016 will need.
Liz is back home and at work.
“I felt I was the only one who could help myself in this situation,” she said. “It was a big accomplishment for me. I had done something totally on my own. It was very, very, very rewarding in the end. I would recommend it to anyone.”