On Dec. 14, Joe Lutes will be celebrating his 53rd birthday, and a much bigger milestone — he’ll be finishing a college degree 35 years in the making.
Lutes graduated in 1983 from Lincoln Northeast High School with a National Merit Scholarship and an interest in foreign policy and politics. He stayed close to home and headed to the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.
Lutes remembers wanting to go to college as a kid. His dad, Bill, encouraged his curiosity.
“He took me to Engineering Week every year,” Lutes said. “I loved science, but I got more into politics in high school.”
So, he majored in political science and philosophy. While he earned decent grades, Lutes soon became restless. Feeling burned out, he quit a part-time job, packed up and left Lincoln.
“I had a lot of adventures over the years, and it was easy to move around and try new things,” Lutes said, ticking off the many jobs he’s held. “Studied Kung Fu in Kansas and then taught it, worked in a gourmet chocolate factory, bartending, managing a restaurant.
“But then you end up in a lot of jobs that don’t have health insurance and that’s a big issue.”
When he settled back in Lincoln, Lutes took a job at Kawasaki Motors. He said the job is enjoyable, but it is not something he wants to do until retirement.
“I’ve spent a lot of my life working with my hands, and it’s hard on your body,” Lutes said. “I would like to work with my brain. I would like to use less body power and more brain power.”
Lutes pondered his options. He could return to college and finish his political science degree, start nearly from scratch on something else, or not go back at all.
“It was a big decision and it took me a couple of years to carry it through,” he said. “I was putting myself in debt and knew I was going to basically have no life.”
A little more than four years ago, Lutes finally made the leap. His mother — dad, Bill, died in 1997 — became his biggest cheerleader.
The enrollment process added a few wrinkles. Most of Lutes’ previous credits were marked on paper transcripts. They had to be located, copied, signed for, and compared to current class offerings. An outstanding student loan was found that needed to be paid. And he had to select a major.
“I chose physics because it has always fascinated me, and physicists have extreme problem-solving skills,” he said, adding that he has minors in political science — from all the classes he took in the 1980s — and mathematics.
Working with supervisors at Kawasaki, Lutes changed his work schedule and started working the night shift while taking classes in the day. A typical day had Lutes going to classes and labs from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.; arriving at work at 3:30 p.m.; home by midnight to finish homework; and catching a few hours of sleep before repeating it all again. He relished his summer breaks.
“I’d find myself in the summer thinking ‘I’m busy,’ and then I go, ‘Ha, you’re not busy — think of two months ago. Having a half hour to yourself is kind of a luxury,’” Lutes said.
For four and a half years, Lutes said, he hasn’t had much of a life outside of classes and work, but it was worth it. He enjoyed the daily interactions with his professors and classmates. He’ll miss those, but he’s looking forward to new opportunities.
He’s already made contacts at Kawasaki to see how he can put his degree to use, and he’ll be watching for possibilities elsewhere.
And earning the degree will make his mom proud.
“At Thanksgiving, I told her I was going to graduate in December,” Lutes said. “She looked up and said, ‘See Bill, he’s doing it.’”