A photo in the 1979 Wellesley High School yearbook explains a lot about Ryk McIntyre, both then and now.
With a cigarette in his mouth, the dark-haired teenager dressed in a button-down shirt, a trendy vest, and bell-bottom jeans has his grandfather’s cane in hand and is clearly dancing for the camera. It’s no wonder Jeanie Goddard, his former English teacher, remembers McIntyre as a “talented actor and a free spirit.”
But adulthood has a way of stunting one’s growth. McIntyre’s passion for performing never wavered, but the need to put food on the table for his family forced him to be practical. He bounced around as a clerk for a couple of law firms and worked in retail and inventory management to make ends meet.
Depression followed. He was drinking too much, and then a genetic spine disorder left him coping with chronic pain and unable to work. Suddenly that handsome kid from Wellesley High was in his 50s, feeling like he had plenty of life to live, but unsure of what he had to offer.
“I kind of had to start life over,” McIntyre told me this week.
So he enrolled in the Community College of Rhode Island.
McIntyre had moved to Providence some years earlier with his second wife, had a third kid, and needed something to do. He had taken a few college courses in the past, but was worried that he was getting too old for school. He jokes that he’s older than most of his professors.
That’s the beauty of community colleges, the great equalizer of higher education. They’re affordable, they accept students from all backgrounds and ages, and they usually offer flexible schedules so that anyone can attend. We often think of college as a pathway out of poverty, but CCRI gave McIntyre a purpose.
Now 61, McIntyre is finally ready to graduate with his associate’s degree in theatre arts. On Thursday, he’ll perform in front of his largest audience ever when he takes the stage at The Dunk as a student commencement speaker. He’ll bring with him that same cane from his yearbook photo, which he now uses to get around.
His address to his classmates is full of charming “when life hands you lemons” anecdotes, but he’s living proof that being a lifelong learner can pay off. He’ll implore students to take chances, to shake off bad breaks, and to think about how they can better the world.
“In theatre, I discovered what I want to be when I grow up,” McIntyre jokes in his speech.
But really, CCRI brought him back to life.
He originally wanted to be an addiction counselor because he wanted to help others battle the same challenges he has faced in life. He’s nine years sober now, and he proudly helps those in need, but as many college students do, he switched majors. Again and again.
He kept revisiting that passion for performing that he’s had since he was a kid, and joined The Community College of Rhode Island Players, the college’s student theatre group. He’s graduating as the president of the organization.
McIntyre credits two of his professors, Ted Clement and Laurie Sherman, with “pushing me into trying things that I wasn’t totally comfortable with,” like joining the Phi Theta Kappa honor society and other college organizations. He said all of his professors have been supportive throughout his journey.
“More than anything, they instilled in me a renewed sense that I really had something to offer,” McIntyre said.
McIntyre isn’t ready to slow down yet, and he’s definitely going to continue performing. If CCRI President Meghan Hughes is smart, she should march on stage and offer him a job as a college ambassador right away.
Yes, his story is interesting because he happens to be nearing the age when he can start collecting Social Security, but McIntyre is an inspiration for all learners. Rhode Island is home to 128,000 adults who have completed some college but haven’t earned a degree. He could become the leading recruiter for Governor Dan McKee’s effort to get more adults to complete school. And while we’re at it, let’s expand the Rhode Island Promise free community college program to include those adults.
For now, McIntyre said he’s hoping to enroll in a four-year college to earn his bachelor’s degree. He’d be an asset anywhere.
“60′s a lot younger than it always looked from far away,” he said.