Sonora resident Snuffy Herring, 71, took a longer route that began with community classes at Chaffey College in Rancho Cucamonga in 1959 and ended 54 years later with a Columbia College degree.
Along the way, he went on road trips, sampled a smorgasbord of classes at several schools, dealt cards in Las Vegas, became a sailboat captain and overcame medical challenges that would have waylaid a less determined person.
His extended college journey makes him the oldest Columbia graduate since 2004, according to the Yosemite Community College District Chancellor’s Office.
“I’ve always stayed under the radar,” Herring said. “But my life really is a story of survival from the day I was born.”
He entered the world prematurely and severely underweight, spending the first few months of his life in an incubator. He still feels guilty that his identical twin brother didn’t survive.
Herring’s family moved from British Columbia to Southern California in 1947, where his father worked in the family’s portable toilet business. Herring joined in, earning him the high-school nickname “Outhouse Mouse.”
One of Herring’s defining traits is his good humor about such things. Others are his humble personality, openness about his life, and unintentionally poetic way of speaking.
“Snuffy” isn’t just another nickname, having replaced Donald as Herring’s real name several months ago. He acquired it decades earlier when his “favorite” uncle, who’d had a bit much to drink, was reading the comic “Barney Google and Snuffy Smith.”
Herring’s inebriated uncle put the newspaper down and addressed him as “Snuffy.”
“It just kind of stuck,” said Herring, who took a shine to the moniker and eventually used it as the name of his sailboat.
A self-described lover of learning, he’s saved transcripts from all six of the colleges he attended. They list almost every course imaginable, from biology to art appreciation.
His early 20s were a study in youthful restlessness. After high school, his plans to attend the U.S. Naval Academy fell through due to a back injury.
He took his first Chaffey College classes intending to earn a journalism degree, but he was a part-time student and not particularly serious about it. He later studied at Mount San Antonio College while working in production for a government aerospace contractor.
“Some of these grades are not very good,” he admitted, holding up one early transcript and pointing to two D’s in math and another in psychology. “I was about as organized as a flood.”
Between jobs and schools, he satisfied his “wanderlust” with a cross-country adventure in the early 1960s on U.S. Route 66 in his new Corvette. He worked whatever odd jobs he could find to put gas in his tank and “grab a taco or burger.”
He spent more than 20 years in Las Vegas’s gaming industry, availing himself of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and the College of Southern Nevada. He didn’t earn a degree there.
“I always had this thing where wherever I lived, I wanted to take classes,” Herring said. “I didn’t have any great goals.”
Instead, he developed a less conventional dream of earning his sailboat captain’s license and starting a sailing charter business.
This time he buckled down. He started “Snuffy’s Sailing Company” in Ventura, where — true to form — he also took classes at Ventura College.
Herring spent about 10 years living aboard his boat, the “Snuffy,” and counts sailing it to Hawaii as one of his proudest achievements. Then his future wife, Laurie Bailie, chartered the vessel.
“That was 20 years ago, and we’re still closer than two coats of paint,” Herring said. “I tell people, ‘Don’t invite me to dinner, because she still hasn’t gotten rid of me.’ ”
The couple arrived in Sonora nine years ago. Herring has two sons from previous marriages and four grandchildren.
Health problems have pervaded his life, a few of which he connects to his premature birth. Between orthopedic treatments, heart stents and other procedures, he counts about 25 surgeries.
He developed melanoma, a form of skin cancer, on the top of his head in 2000. It worsened a few years later, leading to skin grafts and dozens of radiation treatments.
His most recent brush with death was gastrointestinal bleeding from an ulcer last year. He credits quick action by his wife and medical professionals with saving his life.
“I’m very fortunate to be here,” he said. “Every day is a gift to me.”
By taking college classes wherever he lived, he amassed a hodgepodge of credits that are equivalent in number to a bachelor’s degree. But they couldn’t transfer between schools.
He was inspired to enroll at Columbia in 2011 by his sons, brothers and mother, all of whom had four-year degrees.
His favorite classes there were child development courses taught by Donna Meiss and a history course with Chad Redwing. Yet Herring made an impression of his own.
“He never missed a class and had so much to offer,” Meiss said. “He really gave the students a perspective from a different generation. It was very enlightening.”
Herring values everyone he meets, Meiss said. He and his wife have lived out that principle by volunteering with local charities and organizing a clothing drive when Hurricane Katrina struck.
Meiss gave Herring a plaque as a graduation gift. On it is a quote from Walt Disney: “If you can dream it, you can do it.”
And he did. After decades of adventure, both academic and otherwise, Herring graduated from Columbia May 3.
He has some advice for young people straying from their prescribed plans: Go on long journeys and tick off the items on your “bucket list” now, before it’s too late.
“Don’t put it off,” he said. “Just do it.”
Weekly Arts and entertainment guide for Calaveras and Tuolumne counties