KOKOMO, Ind. — Tom Cassidy had no idea what he would do after an injury ended his career as a machinist. With little education after high school, he saw few opportunities available.
“It was probably the most sobering moment I’ve had in my life,” he said. “I never gave a thought to not having any other options. I remember sitting on my couch saying, ‘What the heck am I going to do now?’”
Deep in his heart, he knew he needed to earn a college degree — even though he grew up thinking he wasn’t smart enough for that option.
A former competitive athlete, he made up his mind he would put the same effort into earning a degree at Indiana University Kokomo that he did in cycling and running.
That effort paid off, and he will graduate with a degree in communication arts in May.
“I decided if I could do a 160-mile bike ride, I could do this, too,” he said. “I told myself that every day had to be an ‘A’ day. I would study with ‘A’ effort, go to every class on time, don’t leave early, take notes, and participate in class.
“Now, I’m just about to graduate and I’m an honors student. Who knew?”
Tom’s previous accomplishments, including athletics, serving in the U.S. Navy, and working more than 20 years in machine shops didn’t fulfill his desire to do something meaningful with his life.
“I worked hard, and I made decent money and paid my bills, but what had I really done with my life?” he said. “I want to say before I get too old that I did something significant. Graduating from college is real. This is substantial. I’m going to put on my headstone, ‘bachelor’s degree.’”
Tom, 50, grew up in Lorain, Ohio, where he played football, and joined the Navy right after graduating from high school. He had a few recruiting letters from college football coaches, but none took serious interest in him because of his poor grades.
“I didn’t want to go to college at that time,” he said. “I was immature. I had been told I should consider it, but I didn’t have anyone pushing it on me. My mother supported me, but others told me I didn’t have what it took to go to college, and I just believed them.”
He wishes his mother, who passed away nearly 25 years ago, could see him cross the stage at Commencement.
“She had mentioned a few times that I needed to grow up,” he said. “She never saw me live up to any potential. I wish she could see that I did follow through.”
Later, he returned to Ohio, where a family member hired him for his machine shop. He worked as a machinist for more than 20 years, until he was laid off in the economic downturn of 2009. His sister offered him a job renovating her home in Kokomo, so he packed up his truck and dog for what he anticipated would be a few weeks at her home.
A four-wheeler accident changed everything.
He crashed the ATV trying to avoid hitting a dog, and spent 40 minutes trapped underneath it, in a creek. After two surgeries to repair his broken leg, doctors told him he would not physically be able to return to machining.
He started at Ivy Tech, where his placement test showed he had writing ability. He earned an associate degree in communication, and then enrolled at IU Kokomo.
With a goal of being a writer, he’s worked for the campus newspaper, The Correspondent, and for the Kokomo Perspective, a local weekly paper.
He’s made “Believe to Achieve” his motto in life, and wants to encourage others to boldly go after their dreams, and not let anyone tell them they cannot.
“School was something I ran away from for years. It scared me because I didn’t believe in myself,” he said. “You can’t let people say you can’t do stuff. It’s all in believing in your goals, and going for it. Don’t let anyone put you down.”
Indiana University Kokomo serves north central Indiana.