When Cynthia Maxwell Dillard’s sociology class discussed the 1967 Detroit riot, she described the red glow of the fires, the looting, the gunfire, the fear she felt.
Dillard, 75, was there. Born and raised in Detroit, she was 29 when the riot broke out. Dillard, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in sociology from the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences on May 17, shared with her classmates her personal insights into the political, economic and social factors at work, including police abuse and lack of affordable housing.
“My first thought was, ‘I’m not going to fit in with these kids,’ ” said Dillard, mother of six and grandmother of eight. “But it was just the opposite. I could connect to some of the topics we discussed on a deeper level.”
The year of the Detroit riot was also the year Dillard enrolled in college. At 17, she was accepted to Wayne State University but opted for a job with the federal government.
“My dad asked me not to take the job,” Dillard recounted. “I told him, ‘But you’ve always wanted me to be independent.’ He said, ‘Yeah, but you won’t go back to school.’ I told him I would go back to school, that I would just work a little bit, then go back.”
At 19, Dillard married and later had three children. “And life happened,” she said.
She took classes at various colleges, but several events complicated matters. Her younger sister died after an accidental overdose, then Dillard escaped an abusive marriage. The divorced mother moved to Los Angeles and reconnected with Ernie Dillard, a childhood classmate whom she had known since elementary school. The two married, and she had successful careers as a vice president in corporate banking and later with Drew Child Development Corp.
She eventually enrolled at USC, where Ernie Dillard works in human resources as an employee relations manager. Then the couple’s house burned down and Cynthia Dillard underwent replacement surgery on both knees. But she never forgot her promise to her father, who died in 1984. She recently added her maiden name, Maxwell, to her full name so her father’s name would be included on her diploma.
“If I make a commitment, I follow through,” Dillard said. “I made a promise, and I kept a promise. And I did something that I was meant to do. I just didn’t do it in the time that I could have, had I taken a different path.”
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