May 25, 2011 — When you graduate from high school or college, it generally means you begin another chapter in life.
But for Gene Littlefield, it was really just the final accomplishment in one very long chapter.
The Herald News, a Chicago Sun-Times publication, reported that Littlefield, 81, of Wilmington, Illinois, received his bachelor’s degree in aviation and management from Lewis University earlier this month.
Littlefield, a long-time aviator, has flown 200 different types of airplanes, been inducted into the Illinois Aviation Hall of Fame, and for decades owned and operated his own company that taught flying, including aerobatics, and fixed and sold planes. He and his wife, Cheryl Rae, also performed at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh for many years with their wing-walking act.
So why bother going to college and earning a bachelor’s degree?
Littlefield told the Herald News that it goes back to his childhood. He mainly lived with foster families and relatives as a youngster, and left high school after the 11th grade in 1947 to join the Army.
“From then on, my life was taking care of myself and there never was an opportunity to get a degree,” he said.
After his military service, friends taught him to fly airplanes. He worked as a bricklayer and truck driver throughout the 1950s to earn enough money to start his own aviation business, which eventually moved to Lewis University Airport. That’s where an opportunity to go to school finally came into Littlefield’s life. Lewis University officials asked him to be a part-time aviation instructor and in exchange, he could take classes and earn a degree, the Herald News reported.
While Littlefield has faced many challenges throughout the years, his latest challenge is his health. In September, doctors removed a malignant brain tumor but warned him that it’s the type of cancer that usually returns.
But that’s not stopping him. He plans to start working on his master’s degree in the fall.
Littlefield told the Herald News that he is particularly thankful to Lewis University for the amazing opportunity the school afforded him.
“This degree is a gift — a pure gift,” he said.
Gene Littlefield received his bachelor’s degree in aviation and management in May 2011, after spending decades in the aviation business.
Gene and Cheryl Rae Littlefield perform their wing-walking act above the AirVenture grounds. Photo credit: EAA