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In memoriam: Alfonso Gonzales, 96

The oldest graduate in USC history and World War II veteran officially completed his zoology degree in May

Alfonso Gonzales with cap
Alfonso Gonzales was the first member of his family to go to college. (USC Photo/Gus Ruelas)

Alfonso Gonzales, who became the oldest graduate in USC history when he completed the final missing credit of his bachelor of science degree in zoology in May 2016, passed away on Dec. 27 at his home in Hermosa Beach. He was 96.

Born Jan. 23, 1920 in Lompoc, Gonzales and his family moved to Hermosa Beach in 1938, and he graduated from Redondo Union High School in 1939. He joined the Navy in November 1942 and transferred to the Marine Corps in 1944, where he received training in field medicine. He used those skills when he was deployed to Okinawa, Japan in April 1945, treating wounded on the battlefield as part of World War II’s largest amphibious assault in the Pacific.

Following his military service, he became the first member of his family to go to college, attending Compton Junior College (now El Camino College Compton Center) before transferring to USC in 1947. He began studying zoology in hopes of entering the medical field, but like many students, his career goals changed direction during his time at USC. In 1953, he went into the soil business and started Compo-Loam, providing a proprietary planting mix of soil, compost and other nutrients to homes and nurseries. He led the business until his retirement in 2008 at age 88.

A surprising turn of events

For more than six decades, Gonzales thought that he was already a graduate of what is now the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences; he hadn’t taken part in his 1953 commencement ceremony due to work obligations. But when he and his family members approached the university about getting a copy of his degree, they were met with the surprising news that he was one credit short of completing his bachelor’s program.

Once he learned of Gonzales’ unique situation, USC Registrar Frank Chang approached the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology about using their expertise in working with older adults to help Gonzales finish his degree. USC Davis Instructional Assistant Professor Aaron Hagedorn answered the call, crafting a one-credit independent study course examining autobiographies and how the stories people tell others about themselves change throughout the life span. Throughout the spring 2016 semester, Hagedorn met with Gonzales weekly, gave him reading and video assignments and arranged his visits to other gerontology classes.

Gonzales joined other USC Davis graduates for commencement on May 13, 2016 and met with USC Provost Michael Quick afterward to receive his official degree. Though USC Dornsife no longer offers a program of study in zoology, the major was reopened for Gonzales to receive his degree in his original program.

Gonzales is survived by four generations of nieces and nephews.

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In memoriam: Alfonso Gonzales, 96

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