HOLYOKE, Mass. (WWLP) – Holyoke Community College (HCC) is set to witness a historic moment as James K. Bradford, a 69-year-old U.S. Army veteran, prepares to graduate from the institution for the second time, exactly 50 years after his initial graduation in the spring of 1973.

Bradford’s remarkable achievement is breaking records at HCC, as he becomes the only alumnus to return for another degree after a full five-decade gap. On Saturday, June 3, 2023, Bradford will join his classmates at the MassMutual Center for the college’s 76th Commencement, donning his cap and gown to receive his associate degree in visual art, with honors.

Accompanied by his wife and children, three of whom are also HCC alumni, Bradford’s journey to this milestone has been nothing short of extraordinary. Despite being the oldest member of the HCC Class of 2023, his age hasn’t deterred his dedication to learning and personal growth. Throughout his life, Bradford has worn various hats, including roles as a police officer, defense lawyer, former HCC adjunct professor, and even a Shriners clown. His diverse experiences have shaped his perspective and enriched his educational journey.

Julie Phillips, HCC’s Interim Director of Development, expressed immense pride in Bradford’s accomplishments, hailing it as a testament to lifelong learning, perseverance, and the enduring impact of an HCC education. Bradford’s journey at HCC began in 1971, when he enrolled in the institution situated between the fire that destroyed the original campus and the opening of the new campus on Homestead Avenue in 1974. Despite facing logistical challenges with temporary buildings located a quarter mile apart, he forged ahead, motivated by affordability, proximity to his home, and the presence of his Holyoke Catholic High classmates.

Reflecting on his decision to pursue education during a time overshadowed by the Vietnam War, Bradford shared that his parents convinced him that further education might lead to better prospects in the Army, ultimately influencing his enrollment at HCC. Following his graduation from HCC with a degree in law enforcement, he went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in the same field from the University of Massachusetts. His thirst for knowledge led him to enlist in the Army, where he served as a military policeman in Virginia for two years before transitioning to an eight-year career as a police officer in Newport News.

In his thirties, Bradford returned to Massachusetts and utilized his GI Bill benefits to attend Western New England School of Law. While initially considering work as a prosecutor, he discovered his true calling lay in criminal defense. Bradford’s passion for justice saw him championing the rights of indigent clients as a court-appointed attorney, practicing in Springfield for three decades until his retirement in 2018.

Retirement introduced Bradford to a new chapter of life, as he developed an interest in art through his son William, an HCC alumnus who earned an associate degree in visual art in 2019. Inspired by his son’s journey, Bradford began taking art classes as a diversion. Surprisingly, he discovered a hidden talent and passion for abstract art, particularly specializing in “trash art” by transforming discarded or found objects into unique creations. Bradford finds solace in this form of artistic expression, stating that each piece carries a part of himself, shaped by the life experiences that have defined him.

Due to his preference for in-person learning, Bradford paused his education during the pandemic when classes transitioned online. As soon as HCC reopened for in-person instruction, he seized the opportunity to complete his degree. In December, he finished his final class, marking the culmination of his academic journey.

While Bradford contemplates the end of his formal education, he aspires to teach art to veterans’ organizations in the area. Among the organizations he hopes to collaborate with are the VA, the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, and the Warrior’s Art Room in Easthampton, run by another HCC alumnus, Steve Jones ’15. In recognition of his inspiring story, Bradford was invited to deliver the keynote speech at HCC’s annual Veterans Day celebration in November, where he shared anecdotes from his two stints at HCC and the transformative gap years in between.

As he prepares to cross the commencement stage once again, Bradford expressed his hope of maintaining a connection with HCC beyond graduation. Although this may be his last semester at the institution, he remains grateful for the lifelong impact it has had on his personal and professional growth, shaping him into the person he is today. James K. Bradford’s remarkable journey serves as a beacon of inspiration, reminding us that the pursuit of education knows no age limit and that lifelong learning is a testament to the enduring spirit of human curiosity and resilience.