Douglas E. Whiteside did well for himself without having a piece of paper to prove he graduated high school.
He served in the Navy, raised seven children and had a strong career as a painter that gave him jobs from the Alaskan pipeline to nuclear plants around Detroit.
But when he was laid off from a job in Augusta as a foreman in 2012, he found filling out applications wasn’t as simple as he thought.
“No matter how much experience you got, they look at you funny when they ask for transcripts and you ain’t got none,” Whiteside said. “They don’t care if you dropped out two
weeks before getting your high school diploma. You just shot yourself in the foot.”
So nearing his 60th birthday and about 40 years removed from the classroom, Whiteside did the only thing he could to stay competitive. He enrolled in Augusta Technical College’s GED program and took a seat next to students young enough to be his grandchildren.
Now in classes for his associate degree with a focus on Golf Course Management, he has studied for subjects he hadn’t thought about since he left his New York high school in 1972. He realized he knew how to use nouns and adjectives in speech, but pointing them out on a worksheet was something else altogether.
Because his math class in summer 2012 began at 8 a.m. on Saturdays, two hours before the city bus comes by his stop, Whiteside walked the 1½ miles to campus from his apartment off Gordon Highway so he wouldn’t miss a day.
“Math is tough,” he said. “The only math I needed before was reading a ruler. Now it’s like X equals Y equals what?”
Whiteside was born in Spartanburg, S.C., moved to New York when he was 7 and stayed there until he was drafted by the Navy in 1972. After four years of traveling the world as an operations specialist, he returned to New York and easily found work as a painter, not ever thinking of returning to the classroom.
“Back then, education was cool, but it wasn’t at a premium like it is today,” he said. “You could get around without it.”
He joined a painters union and worked in Detroit for 15 years on commercial, residential and industrial projects.
He moved to Spartanburg to be with family and then to Augusta in 2007 where the work was good. He was a project manager for ELA Enterprises
and then a foreman for a company that painted projects for Georgia Regents University.
The job required him to travel, which he wasn’t able to do, so he was laid off, he said.
He had a lifetime of experience to tout to potential employers, so he was shocked to hear companies turn him away for his lack of a degree. Whiteside knew it was time for a change.
“I was down to my last unemployment check with no future prospects, so I said why not go back to school,” he said.
Until he enrolled for his GED, Whiteside said his seven children weren’t aware that he didn’t finish high school. They all were taught the value of hard work and education. Three who graduated college work as a structural engineer, an occupational therapist and a computer programmer. The others work in car detailing and other trade jobs, but all know how to work, he said.
When he went back to school, Whiteside said the first day was nothing short of terrifying.
Gone were the days of paper and pencil. Assignments had to be turned in online and essays had to be typed and double-spaced.
Until then, his computer expertise was limited to what he could learn watching over the shoulder of his kids. But with the help of teachers and classmates, Whiteside learned, even though he types with his index fingers.
“I didn’t expect to be so ignorant to technology to the point that I was petrified of it, but I was,” he said. “I’m still not great at going to the Web sites.”
Being in the classroom has taught Whiteside he has something to offer others, too. He’s not afraid to tell younger men in class to pull their sagging pants up or to share stories from his life during lectures.
During a discussion in English class about the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese, a case that coined the term “the bystander effect” because dozens heard her cries and did nothing to help, Whiteside was able to chime in.
“I was just a boy when that happened in New York, and I remember that,” he said. “I was able to put it in a way others could understand because I was around then.”
Whiteside is aiming toward graduating in June and using his degree to work maintenance at Yankee Stadium or something simpler. After turning 60 this month, Whiteside isn’t sure how many work years he has left.
The goal of finishing his education had more to do with proving to himself that he could do it.
“I just want to make as much as my years of experience owe me,” he said.