Determined grad waited 35 years to complete his CSU degree

Tom Klis

Tom Klis will carry a unique set of credentials with him Saturday (3 p.m., Moby Arena) when he crosses the stage to receive his diploma in Watershed Science from Colorado State University’s Warner College of Natural Resources:

  • He’s undoubtedly the only graduate in the Class of 2018 to have a 34-year gap between his next-to-last class and his final class.
  • He’s probably the only graduate who will be crossing the stage a second time to collect the same degree.
  • And Klis almost certainly will be the only one in cap and gown who has been read the last rites – three times!

“It’s been quite a journey,” Klis said, “for me and Colorado Gosh Darned State University.”

That might be the understatement of the year. Klis’ path to graduation is so unusual, so wonderfully extraordinary, so improbable that it borders on unbelievable. It includes a stop on CSU’s football team, a failed “easy A” course that cost him his diploma in 1984, 30 years working on a garbage truck in his hometown and an alcohol-fueled trip to death’s doorstep.

Logically speaking, there’s simply no way he should be graduating this weekend. But thanks to his own determined spirit, a group of fellow students who embraced the 57-year-old and a Warner College administrator who inexplicably felt compelled to help him achieve his dream, Klis indeed will be collecting his diploma.

“I started this process two years ago, and pretty much everyone said ‘no’ initially,” he said. “But when they call my name at graduation and allow me to walk across that stage, I’ll probably just cry tears of joy thinking about all of the people who helped me to get there. It’s going to be pretty emotional.”

Unusual journey

The Klis story starts in 1979. He had always dreamed of being a forest ranger, and CSU offered him a chance to become one while also getting far away from his hometown of Oswego, Ill. A standout quarterback and defensive back in high school, he decided to try out for a walk-on spot on CSU’s football roster.

“It was a big thrill for me when I made the team,” he said. “I was the only walk-on on the team who got to dress for home games – a big honor. I really enjoyed being part of the team.”

His claim to fame

The Rams coach was Sark Arslanian, and Klis’ teammates included CSU standouts like Alvin Lewis, Rick Dennison, Kevin Sheesley and Wade Troxell, mayor of Fort Collins. He never got on the field, but he did manage to snare an errant pass from legendary Brigham Young and Chicago Bears quarterback Jim McMahon while standing on the sidelines.

“My claim to fame,” he said, laughing.

Klis admitted that his schoolwork was not a priority, and that his grade point average was always hovering around the 2.0 mark. Even when he gave up football after one season – “I was smart enough to realize I wasn’t big enough to compete” – he was always right on the brink academically.

“Supposed to be a piece of cake”

He went into his final semester at CSU needing an easy “A” elective course to make sure his GPA remained above 2.0. But the class in argumentation and debate was at 8 a.m., and Klis was enjoying a busy social life, and…

“I never went to class and the professor refused to pass me,” he said. “I flunked the class that was supposed to be a piece of cake.”

Too embarrassed to tell his friends and family about his lapse, he still donned a cap and gown and walked across the stage to collect a non-existent diploma that spring in 1983. He returned to Oswego, found a summer job working on a trash truck and discovered he could make good money collecting garbage.

Fast-forward 30 years. Klis got married (twice) and divorced (twice) and raised his daughter. He had made enough money to retire but fell into a dark place, unable to figure out what to do in the next phase of his life.

“I had always carried this anvil on my shoulders about being so close and not graduating,” he said. “I was going through a tough time, drinking a lot. Inwardly, I was destroyed.”

From vacation to life and death situation

He hoped a trip with his daughter to the coast of Maine would help. Instead, he got drunk, fell down on the porch of the beach house and fell into a coma. He would spend the next 2½ months in the hospital, where his condition was so grave that family asked for the last rites three times.

Mike Klis
Mike Klis, Tom’s big brother, covers the Denver Broncos for 9News in Denver. Tom stayed at his brother’s house in Golden while completing his degree at CSU.

His big brother, 9News Denver Broncos reporter Mike Klis, got the call on Aug. 5, 2015, when Tom went into the hospital.

“We thought we had lost him several times,” Mike recalled. “He got a second chance at life.”

Klis eventually emerged from his coma a different person. He found strength in his Christian faith, quit drinking and vowed to somehow remove that anvil that had been weighing him down for 30-plus years.

Once he had fully recovered he reached out to CSU, leaving a long, detailed voicemail in Warner College’s Department of Ecosystem Science and Sustainability about his desire to finish his degree and a request for assistance in making that happen. Kaye Holman, an academic success and internship coordinator in the college, heard the message and did some investigating.

“He left this long, rambling message in the late evening, and no one was quite sure what to think of it,” Holman said. “Our general policy is that you have to finish your degree within 10 years of leaving CSU, so I left a voicemail for Tom explaining our policy.”

A fateful decision

When Tom didn’t call back, Holman very easily could have moved on with her life. But something – she’s still not sure what it was – made her follow up with a second call to Tom.

“I told him that if he wanted to talk strategy for earning a degree I would do my best to help him,” she said. “His records were so old we had to pull them off microfiche and convert them to digital. I worked with the registrar’s office and faculty and we came up with a plan to get Tom started.”

Kaye Holman
Kaye Holman

One problem: Tom was so far removed from the academic world that he was computer illiterate. He took classes at community colleges near his home in an effort to make up for decades of technology deficit before declaring himself ready to return to CSU.

In January, he moved into Mike’s home in Golden, from where he would commute to Fort Collins for his classes: A senior capstone required of all watershed science majors, and a watershed sustainability course.Tom was terrified. He was 57 years old and hadn’t attended a class at CSU in 35 years. He left Golden 4-plus hours prior to the start of his capstone class.

“I was 90 minutes early and I didn’t know what to do, so I sat down at a table in the front of the classroom,” he said. “I didn’t want to look at anyone because I just felt so out of place, thinking no one would ever want to sit with the old man in the class.”

Alone, but not for long

And he was right; he sat alone. But Stephanie Kampf, assistant professor of ecosystem science and sustainability, was teaching the capstone and invited the small class of students to introduce themselves. When it was Klis’ turn, he teared up telling his story and thanked the other students for allowing him to be part of their class.

Tom Klis with Alex Olsen-Mikitowicz
Classmates like Alex Olsen-Mikitowicz, right, embraced Tom and helped him through the challenges of their senior capstone class. Tom thanked Alex by taking him out to dinner in Fort Collins.

“Tom was an outsider – much older than the rest of us,” said Alex Olsen-Mikitowicz. “But watershed science is a fairly small major, and we form a pretty tight-knit community. After a couple of weeks we brought Tom into the fold. He’s very outgoing and honest, and we were happy to have him on board.”

Like Klis, Olsen-Mikitowicz was a nontraditional student: a 32-year-old Air Force veteran who served as a radar and surveillance technician during his four-year stint. He was drawn to Klis and started offering him assistance.

“Tom was at a tremendous disadvantage because of all the technology changes that had taken place since he was in school,” he said. “But he’s such a humble, modest guy, and he brought in some type of food – fruit, pastries and other things – almost every day. As a class we recognized that he needed some extra help and we all did our best to assist him.”

Klis spent hours daily in the library trying to close the gap between him and success. His laissez faire approach to academics as a twenty-something had been replaced by an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. When coupled with the help of classmates, he passed both classes with flying colors.

“My classmates literally dragged me across the finish line,” Tom said. “I was terrified of going back to school, but it turned into a wonderful experience. I’m really sad it’s over.”

Tom, who often credits his rediscovered faith for turning his life around, called Holman – the woman who could have ignored his initial call but didn’t – his “angel on earth.”

“I’ve been in higher education for 30 years, and I’ve been around a lot of students who have done a lot of amazing things, but I can honestly say there’s nobody quite like Tom,” Holman said. “To come back the way he did and rectify an error that the younger version of him made to earn his degree, I deeply admire him. It only reaffirms the transformative power of education in our lives.

“I can’t wait to hug him on Saturday and join in celebrating his accomplishments.”

Proud to be

Olsen-Mikitowicz called spending the past few months with Klis “an honor.”

“I’m so proud of being a Warner Ram because of everything they’ve done for Tom,” he said. “They easily could have turned him away, but they took the time to understand his situation and give him a chance. It really makes me proud to be part of a university that showed they really cared about him.

“It’s going to be emotional for me when I graduate because it was a struggle for me to get through. But I’m also really proud to know Tom, and I know everyone in that class would say the same thing. He’s one of us.”

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