If you were looking for the union label at Penn State University’s recent graduation ceremonies, you likely would have spotted Regis Kingera. The 72-year-old retired Electrical Worker (IBEW), who earned his Bachelor of Science degree after enrolling at Penn State following his 1998 retirement, was sporting the IBEW logo on his mortarboard.
Our friends at IBEW.org have posted a fascinating look at Kingera’s post-retirement accomplishments and how his union electrician’s career provided his family with a good middle-class life, helped shape his children’s values and supported his retirement goals.
The American philosopher and education reformer John Dewey once coined a phrase that has echoed through universities for decades: “Education is not preparation for life–education is life itself.”
That maxim rings true for 72-year-old IBEW retiree Regis Kingera. On May 16, he walked across the stage to receive his diploma at Penn State’s College of Liberal Arts commencement ceremony. But far from being a checkered flag at the finish line, Kingera humbly sees this accomplishment as one more stone on the path of his life.
“The ceremony was fantastic—a real thrill,” said Kingera, a member of IBEW Local 26 in Washington, D.C., who earned a Bachelor of Science degree in organizational leadership. “But at the same time, I’m already thinking about what I’m going to do next. I have to be active and learning all the time. It helps keep me young.”
A father of two with two grandchildren, Kingera completed his degree through the school’s “Go-60″ program, which offers free classes for state residents 60 years or older. The Pennsylvania native started the program in 1998 after moving to State College, Pa., to live closer to his older daughter following his retirement.
“I was sitting in the apartment one morning, looking out the window at all the young people going to class, and it really motivated me,” he said. Soon, Kingera enrolled in writing courses at the university, eventually selecting an adviser and crafting a path of study to graduate with a full degree.
Some classes that hooked him were in labor history, economics and law. One of his final course assignments was to write a paper on “the perfect job,” so he wrote about his time as a journeyman wireman with Local 26. “Imagine working in buildings where Washington, Lincoln and others made history,” he said. “Who could ask for something more interesting?”
Growing up in a family of union steelworkers, Kingera graduated from Johnstown High School in 1954. He then went into the Navy for four years, eventually migrating to Silver Spring, Md., where he was initiated into Local 26 in 1965.
He spent most of his career with L.T. Souder and Mona Electric Group, Inc.—all the while continuing to take JATC [Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee] courses and OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] training. Kingera also served as an apprentice instructor and a shop steward, among other positions. A seasoned activist, he has worked on Democratic Party campaigns, joined campus rallies to speak out against sweatshop labor and worked strike relief throughout the past decades.
Kingera’s union appreciation runs deep. For graduation, he made sure that his cap and gown were union-made in America. He even put an IBEW logo on the top of his mortarboard.
“That’s just my style,” Kingera said. “I always wear my IBEW pin and jacket. I preach union values everywhere I go. Everything I have, I owe the IBEW. Everything I can do, I try to pay back. Outside of my family, my union is my life.”
Union values helped shape his own household. “From my very earliest memories of my dad, he’s always talked about the benefit of organized labor,” said Karen Burgos, Kingera’s older daughter. “We were the epitome of the commercial where the family urges you to look for the union label.”
Burgos said the IBEW gave her family a solid quality of living and continues to be of benefit. “Moneywise, we were always in good shape,” she said. “And it’s provided my dad with a retirement beyond what he had ever dreamed.” His pension helped cover his schoolbook purchases, which were usually several hundred dollars per semester.
“We’re so proud of him for this accomplishment,” Burgos said. “It takes a lot of perseverance, but I never had any doubts that he could do it.”
Following a week of relaxation after a challenging semester, Kingera added some new items to his lengthy to-do list: studying for the GRE and the LSAT, the tests that graduate and law schools require for admittance.
“In no way am I done doing what I want to do,” he said. “If I could give a message to all the people who are retired, it’s this: You don’t sit in a rocking chair and waste away. I’m hoping that my education will continue to open doors for me.”
And as Kingera keeps a dizzying schedule that would exhaust many people half his age, he’s living proof that age isn’t as important as how old you feel. “Most days, I feel like I’m about 22,” he said. “That’s a good thing, because I still have a lot of living ahead of me.”