No longer a pipe dream
by Eric Apalategui | © Washington State University
Dave Van Curen graduated from Kelso High School and followed his father to Longview Fibre Co. in 1965.
"In Kelso, during that time, everybody's father worked in a mill," says Van Curen, who spent most of his years at the paper plant as a pipe fitter. "When you grow up in a community where everybody works in a mill, you don't become aware of the other possibilities."
Now, at an age when many coworkers are gliding toward retirement, he is keenly aware of other possibilities. This year, he earned his bachelor's degree in public affairs at Washington State University Vancouver, quit his job before earning full retirement benefits, and, soon after his 57th birthday in August, started law school at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon.
"The way I rationalized that choice was, if I'm successful, I'll be a lawyer at 60. If I didn't do it, I would still be pulling on wrenches."
Van Curen comes from a family of Cougars, including wife Joann ('77 Education) and daughters Molly ('00 Public Affairs) and Katie ('03 Communication). Their third daughter, Christy, is a sophomore at WSU.
But he struggled to earn his degree. In the early 1970s, after stints at Longview Fibre and in the Navy, he took classes at Lower Columbia College and longed to transfer to a four-year school. He had trouble keeping on track and finally stayed on at the mill full-time in 1973.
"One reason I didn't continue was I didn't have [career] goals," he says.
In 1990, he signed up for classes at WSU Vancouver, but soon stopped to concentrate on his daughters' schooling and his growing role in his union, the Association of Western Pulp and Paper Workers.
In 1996, he slowed his union work and returned to the Vancouver campus to give it one final shot. He already had completed about half of his credit requirements, and for the next eight years he chipped away to finally earn his degree.
"Even though [WSU Vancouver] is a very young school and it's not well known, I don't think I could've learned any more at the most famous or prestigious university in the country," says Van Curen.
Van Curen expects to earn his law degree in three years by devoting the same 60 hours a week to studies that he once divided between shift work and WSU classes.
"I'm going to appreciate not doing the hard, physical, sweaty work," he says. "That'll be nice, because your body starts to wear out."
To help, he adopted a motto: "You're never too old to be what you might have been," a paraphrase of a quotation often attributed to English writer George Eliot. Even so, Van Curen is the oldest member of his 181-student law school class-nearly three times the age of his youngest classmate.
"Their advantage is, most of them are probably actually smarter than me," he says with a laugh. His advantage? "The older students are less hormonally or socially distracted."
Van Curen anticipates going into labor law, because "that's where my heart, interest, and experience are."
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