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Centenarian Marks His Graduation—Nearly 60 Years After Earning His UMGC Degree

Mary Dempsey
By Mary Dempsey
  • Commencement |
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John "Jack" Milton

John “Jack” Milton ’66 was a dashing Air Force test pilot married to Symantha, a fashion model who followed him on his military career around the world, taking risks that amazed those who knew them. Indeed, among family members their exploits are legendary.

There was the time Milton crashed a plane in Alaska and was lost for three days. And the incident when Symantha, nicknamed Sammie, was briefly kidnapped. And, of course, the still-clandestine operation in which Milton flew an elected leader out of an African country under siege.

While there was no shortage of adventure in Milton’s life, there is one milestone he did not take part in. In 1966, on the day he should have attended his commencement from what is now University of Maryland Global Campus, he was on his way to southeast Asia for a military deployment in Vietnam.

On April 30, at an event Milton thought was to inaugurate a conference room in honor of him and his late wife, UMGC President Gregory Fowler, had a surprise. Fowler conferred on Milton—one of the university’s oldest and most distinguished alumni—a Bachelor of Arts degree and presented a diploma and a mortar board with tassel that Milton donned with pride.

It may have been 58 years late, but it was no less sweet.

“It feels wonderful … and it makes up for me not attending my graduation ceremony,” said Milton, who turns 101 in August. “I feel like this is the finale of a long journey in education.

“I have had many ceremonies throughout my life, fortunately, but this has to be the top,” he added.

The private degree ceremony, attended by family members who traveled from Maryland, Ohio and North Carolina—who were in on the secret—as well as friends, university officials and UMGC staff, had originally been planned last year in conjunction with Milton’s 100th birthday. A health issue forced a rescheduling.

Milton was presented with his diploma by UMGC President Gregory Fowler and Nicole DeRamus, associate vice president for stateside military operations.

Tuesday’s activities acknowledged Milton’s deep connection to his alma mater and the generous way he and Sammie, who died in 2016, stepped forward to support the arts and student scholarships at UMGC.

“We talk about how higher education can transform lives, but we have to remember that it is a ripple effect,” said Fowler, who had just returned a day earlier from UMGC graduation ceremonies in Asia and Europe. “I have literally seen thousands of UMGC graduates around the world and the impact that resonates across the next generation.

“I am a huge fan of people who pay it forward,” he said in reference to Milton.

Milton and his wife directed their philanthropy to a long roster of UMGC scholarships, including the John L. and Symantha Milton Scholarship Fund, which was created in 2010. Later, after learning about UMGC’s Pillars of Strength Scholarship Program for caregivers of wounded military personnel and veterans, Milton redirected his giving.

“Active-duty personnel get free education, and veterans get the GI bill,” he said. “But these caregivers have no way to get financial aid after all of the sacrifices they have made in caring for our wounded vets.”

Milton’s military career, which took him through World War II, the Korean War and the war in Vietnam, is draped in superlatives. He was the one of the first members of the U.S. Air Force, joining that new branch of the military in 1947 from the Army Air Corps where he had gained his piloting skills. He was one of only two servicemembers—among a group of 5,000—to rise to the rank of colonel. He test piloted every aircraft used by the Air Force, racking up more than 12,000 hours of flight time. And he played a central role in standardizing the location of cockpit controls in both military and private sector aircraft.

Eventually, he moved stateside to work for the Pentagon. When he finally retired from the military in 1974, Milton launched a highly successful career in finance with Merrill Lynch.  

Milton is matter-of-fact when discussing his overseas adventures but, among his friends and family, his life is the stuff of movies.  

Milton was joined by extended family at his diploma presentation.

“Uncle Jack and Aunt Sammie had a fascinating life. It was like Hollywood,” said the couple’s great niece, Lori Hinman, who traveled from Cincinnati for the graduation ceremony. “We’re so proud of him.”

“I said he needs to write a book,” added Hinman’s mother, Norma Thall.

Perhaps one of the most dangerous missions was his assignment as an air attaché in the Republic of Congo in the early 1960s. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Force’s highest flying honor, for his work at that time, but he does not speak on the record much about what happened.

The danger was great enough, however, that he taught Sammie—who was with him in Africa—how to use an old submachine gun. Although the word got around about her abilities with a gun, there was a brief kidnapping attempt. A local man stepped forward to quickly help her escape, her niece said.

“Much later on when I got to thinking about it, I became a little bit jittery and a little nervous about the risks involved,” Milton said.  

It was while working at the Pentagon that Milton connected with UMGC, using his military benefits to enroll in night classes toward an undergraduate degree focused on political science. “In the evenings, the Pentagon rooms were converted into classrooms,” he said. By transferring previous college credits and taking an impressive course load, he completed the degree in two and a half years. At the time, a military buildup was underway in Vietnam and Milton was working full-time as the officer in charge of expanding the Special Air Warfare from to 52 squadrons, from 14 squadrons, in three years. 

He credits his UMGC degree for his promotion to colonel. The Air Force later sent him to Boston University, where he received a graduate degree in communications and public relations. And before joining the private sector, he returned to UMGC to take a course on strategies for a career transition.

Over the years, Milton has stepped forward to volunteer for the university system at various moments and has met every UMGC president since the university’s creation as an institution serving military members and other adult learners.

“I told them that my heart really was at UMGC because they are serving the military,” Milton said. “And I appreciate all the university has done for me.”