This 94-year-old started his college career way back in the 40s and is finishing up some 70 years later.
Written by Adrianne Wyatt
Photographs by Brian Persinger
It takes most graduates four years to complete their degrees. For some, it might take five or six. For Anthony Brutto, who studied off and on for 75 years, it's taken a lifetime.
The 94-year-old Morgantown native will be one of the oldest graduates in the history of West Virginia University when he joins some 4,500 other students receiving diplomas during Commencement Weekend as he is awarded his Regents Bachelor of Arts degree from University College on May 17.
The story of Brutto's college journey begins in the first half of the 20th Century,
ends in the first half of the 21st Century, and shows the pioneering, determined
spirit that marks all Mountaineers.
Woodworking was “key”
Born into an Italian immigrant family that first settled in Grafton, then later Morgantown and Manheim, Brutto lived in a tight-knit community. His life-long interest in woodworking would begin in his neighbor’s woodshop, where the family made violins. He watched and learned, then began making little things himself.
One day, Brutto hatched a plan that would change how he viewed woodworking. His
mother always locked away candy in a little chest and hid the key. He would whittle
a key out of wood.
“It actually worked,” Brutto says, smiling over the memory.
That was his “light-bulb” moment: He would make things that people could use. Next,
he wanted to hone his skills through formal education.
Brutto entered WVU in 1939 determined to graduate in four years. He first majored in engineering, which he figured matched well with his passion for design and creating. It proved difficult, though, and he felt as if he did not have adequate guidance.
“So, I switched to physical education and industrial arts,” says Brutto. “I worked in the shop with wood and did metalworking. I started making jewelry.”
The world goes to war
Unfortunately, his studies came to an abrupt halt. In 1942, as he was nearing graduation, Brutto was drafted and had to leave school, serving in the Army Air Corps until the end of World War II three and a half years later.
For the majority of that time, he was stationed in Venice, Florida, where he worked on aircraft, using what he had learned in his WVU metalworking classes. The military provided an intense education, as well. He was sent to several aircraft mechanic schools – from Columbus, Ohio, to Niagara Falls, New York. He learned to build and repair P39 and P49 bombers.
Rebuilding a life
After the war, Brutto began working in a local cement plant with his father and brothers. He was still determined to go back to school, though.
In 1946, he re-enrolled at WVU and was ready to finish his degree. Again, before
he was able to graduate, he needed to drop out. This time, it was to take care
of his ill wife, a difficult decision that is still hard for him to recall.
He took the skills he learned while at WVU and in the Army and applied them to
his future careers. For much of his working life, he was a machinist at different
factories and plants.
“In 1955, I started working for Thompson Products in Cleveland. I was a machinist
for the tool room,” he said. Thompson manufactured aircraft, spacecraft and was
one of the first companies to make intercontinental ballistic missiles.
After layoffs at the plant, he settled in Morgantown for good.
Retired but still working
Brutto officially retired in the mid-80s, but he has never stopped working. All his life, it seems, he stayed busy sculpting objects out of wood.
“I came across a bird at a garden sale and purchased it,” says his daughter, Lisa.
“My Dad looked at it and made a replica. He liked the shape and was able to think
about the woodgrain and how it would come together. He created a more abstract
version of it.”
Brutto made more wooden birds, then started making rhinos, elephants and porcupines.
He still taps into his early design training.
To finish the wood, he uses a mix of power and hand tools. He sands his objects
to an impossibly smooth finish with homemade devices, such as dowels covered
in sandpaper. He also has begun making jewelry again and sells his handcrafted
pieces at the Appalachian Gallery in Morgantown and at independent shops in Alexandria,
Virginia, and Chicago.
Attaining a goal
When Brutto applied to the RBA program, it cost a bit more than his $50 college tuition in 1939. But, for him, finally completing his bachelor’s degree has a worth above money.
“It was always important to me to graduate,” he says.
Now, he can make a beautiful wood frame for his diploma.
Asked if he plans to pursue a master’s degree, he chuckles and says, “No. I think
I’ll take a break for a while.”
MEDIA: For high resolution photos, please visit http://wvutoday.wvu.edu/anthony_brutto.