A 79-year-old man is proving that it’s never too late to go to school. Rev. Willie Ryals, who started attending an online school in 2021, has now earned his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, the Tallahassee Democrat reported.
“I’m happy for myself, because my father always wanted me to go after a degree,” Ryals told the Tallahassee Democrat. “He’s passed and gone, but I’m keeping this promise.”
While focusing on his education, Ryals has continued to serve as pastor of Zion Hope Community Baptist Church in Gadsden County, Florida. In addition, he still makes sure to take care of his wife Mandy Woodard Ryals.
“He would miss some of his classes because of my doctor’s appointments and would have to catch up, but he never gave up,” Mandy told the Tallahassee Democrat. “He works all night and sometimes would have to prop his legs up for the swelling, but he would still go after it. I’m proud of him and very, very happy.”
As a teenager, Ryals attended Florida A&M University’s Developmental Research School, but he dropped out and became a traveling vocalist with various bands. In 1962, Ryals joined the U.S. Army. After he was discharged two years later, the Florida native was convicted of aggravated manslaughter. Ryals, who was sentenced to 10 and 20 concurrent year sentences in prison, said he was acting in self-defense during a house break-in.
While he was incarcerated, Ryals finished high school and took college courses. He was then granted an early release from prison in 1971. Ryals’ experience in prison inspired him to study criminal justice.
“While I was in prison, I saw a need for criminal justice reform,” he said. “There are too many young Blacks going to jail for crimes that they didn’t commit, and there needs to be some changes.”
Ryals will be accompanied by his wife and daughter, Marionette Taylor, at his graduation ceremony.