Morton L. Mandel

Morton L. Mandel, 91, holds up his diploma during the May 19, 2013, commencement ceremony at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Mandel earned a bachelor’s degree after first enrolling in college in 1939.

Though Morton L. Mandel’s business success would likely qualify him to deliver a commencement address, that wasn’t why he attended Case Western Reserve University’s graduation ceremony on May 19. Peter B. Lewis handled those honors.

Nor was Mandel there to receive an honorary degree in recognition of his philanthropic efforts. He already received one from CWRU in 2007.

Instead, Mandel sat with 2,000 fellow graduates and joined them in donning a cap and gown while accepting his diploma. Having earned a bachelor’s degree, the graduation ceremony marked the completion of an undergraduate curriculum 74 years in the making.

“It’s important to me to take this last step. It’s like I stopped on third base and had a chance to score by going home,” said the 91-year-old Mandel, a Bratenahl resident and member of The Temple-Tifereth Israel in Beachwood. “It’s completing something that was slightly incomplete.”

Mandel enrolled at Adelbert College – as part of what’s now CWRU was known from 1882 to 1971 – in the fall of 1939. With an academic scholarship in hand, he majored in English.

“I was going to write the Great American Novel,” he said.

After completing his freshman year, however, Mandel joined his brothers, Jack and Joseph, in starting Premier Industrial Corporation, which launched in August 1940. He didn’t return to college the following fall semester, deciding instead to focus on building the business.

In 1943, life took another turn when Mandel joined the U.S. Army in light of World War II. A few months after he enlisted, the Army sent him and thousands of others back to school, so to speak, because it feared a wartime shortage of engineers.

Mandel spent two years as a student for the Army, first at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., and later at University of California, Berkeley.

“Then peace came shortly after that, and I was discharged,” he said.

Mandel revisited Adelbert College in 1946 to find out how many credit hours he needed to earn a chemistry degree, which he then desired over English due to his business. His years as an Army engineering student helped but still left him short of graduating, so he decided again to focus his efforts on Premier Industrial Corporation.

“I didn’t feel I needed those extra hours, so I never went back,” he said.

Until recently, that is, following a brief conversation Mandel had with CWRU President Barbara R. Snyder not long after she took the reins at the university.

“I’d mentioned to her years ago that I was an alum, and one of the reasons for (the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Foundation’s) generosity toward Case Western Reserve is paying back the university that gave me a free ride to an education,” he said, referring to the academic scholarship he received in 1939. “That’s not 100 percent of the reason, but that’s part of it.”

According to Mandel, Snyder then recently determined what was needed for him to earn his degree and presented him with a plan for doing so.

“We have an established process for students who want to resume their studies and complete their degree after time lapses,” said Don Feke, vice provost of undergraduate education. “There are really three parts to it.”

The first involves determining whether the student completed the necessary general education courses.

“We tend to look at what was in place when the student started his or her studies, then we see whether they met the general education requirements during the period of first enrollment,” Feke said.

Secondly, the university determines whether the student completed a “coherent set of courses that make for a major,” Feke said. Lastly, the student must accumulate the minimum number of credit hours toward a degree, which is 120 at CWRU, Feke said.

Mandel needed six additional credits, which included satisfying the senior capstone requirement for CWRU bachelor’s degree recipients.

For the capstone requirement, Mandel met on April 11 with Feke; Mary Barkley, chair of the chemistry department; and Gregory Tochtrop, an associate professor of chemistry.

“They spent three hours with me, really asking me questions, and then they were going to evaluate whether or not I deserved to get the credits I still needed,” Mandel said. “My understanding was that this had to pass muster; they weren’t going to be nice about it and give me something I didn’t earn.”

Mandel’s capstone report largely revolved around his recently published book – Mandel’s eventual Great American Novel, as he called it – “It’s All About Who You Hire, How They Lead, … And Other Essential Advice From a Self-Made Leader” and an accompanying presentation.

“Part of it was that my book is something serious, and that what they read in the book and what they heard from Mort Mandel was the same – it wasn’t just something someone wrote and I put my name on it,” Mandel said.

Students who accomplish what Mandel has after so much time has passed aren’t common, Feke said.

“It’s just a handful of students,” he said. “As you might imagine, students who have been out one, two, three or four years are more common than those who’ve been out 10 to 20 years, so you can extrapolate from that just how rare this is.”

Mandel plans on framing his degree and hanging it in his Parkwood Corp. office in Cleveland next to the honorary doctor of humanities degree he received from CWRU in 2007.

“Over the years, I’ve been a supporter of education, and higher education has always been a focus of our efforts,” he said, referring to the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Foundation, which recently awarded $8 million to CWRU to support programs in social work, nonprofit leadership and community engagement.

“It makes me feel good, and in a way, I’m making a statement,” said Mandel of graduating. “Completing my college degree is another way I can reinforce my conviction that getting a college degree … is what everyone should strive for.”

Considering a career full of personal and professional accomplishments, where does Mandel rank earning his bachelor’s degree?

“In terms of personal satisfaction, it’s very high,” he said. “It’s another milestone.”

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