On Aug. 6 last year, then-85-year-old Tom Capehart penned a letter to USC registrar Francisco Chang. Capehart was a Rossier student-athlete more than 60 years ago but fell short of earning a physical education degree because there was still one class he had yet to complete.
“My four-year scholarship ended in 1956 when I still needed the four-unit class,” Capehart wrote. “At that time, I did not have the money to continue my education, I needed to go right to work and support my family.”
Ten months later, Capehart, now 86, penned a new letter — this time as a speech to his fellow graduates of the Class of 2020.
Born in the small town of Kingsburg, Calif. in 1934, all Capehart knew growing up was sports. His mother died when he was 4 years old and his father was hospitalized later in his childhood, leaving his high school football coach Laurence Langley and the community to raise him. His closest friends included Rafer Johnson, who would go on to become a decathlon champion in the 1960 Rome Olympics, and future 49ers and Detroit Lions coach Monte Clark.
By high school, Capehart was a four-sport athlete in football, baseball, basketball and swimming. He earned 13 varsity letters and led the basketball team to a league title during his four years at Kingsburg High School.
It wasn’t long before he caught the eyes of scouts from both the collegiate and professional levels. Among the offers were full scholarships from Stanford and USC as well as a contract from the Boston Red Sox. In the end, Capehart followed the lead of USC alumnus Langley and signed with the Trojans, becoming the first ever in his family to go to college.
From a graduation class of just 52 to lectures holding more than 300 students 196 miles from his hometown, college was nothing short of an adjustment for the young student-athlete.
“I can remember to this day my first class,” Capehart said. “It was, I believe, ‘Man and Civilization’ in Bovard Auditorium, and there must have been 350 or 400 students — more in the class than in my entire high school.”
The structure of college sports was different in the 1950s, with the NCAA requiring first-year student-athletes to compete on freshman teams for a season before joining the varsity squad. Capehart played under football coach Jesse Mortensen in Fall 1952, serving as team captain in the game against Stanford.
Capehart’s athletic career began to change direction following his first football season. During one basketball game, he sustained an injury requiring surgery and a season’s recovery. While in the hospital, Capehart received the news that his dad had died. Not even a year later, he suffered a knee fracture in the season-opening football game against Washington State, and Capehart was told he could no longer participate in contact sports.
A college career without sports was impossible for Capehart, who depended on an athletic scholarship. When a teammate joked that he should try out for the water polo team, Capehart took it seriously. Coming in with left-handed pitching and swimming backgrounds, Capehart impressed the coach in a practice and scored 3 goals in his first game.
“I didn’t know the rules,” Capehart said. “I got numerous penalties called on me because I didn’t know what I should do or not do.”
Capehart stayed with the water polo team for the rest of his college career and picked up swimming as an additional sport. Even with his athletic skill, time in the pool wore on Capehart. He received the nickname “The Puker” because the high levels of chlorine in the indoor pool frequently caused him to throw up.
Capehart was also progressing on his physical education degree, but his series of injuries prevented him from taking a required four-unit course involving impact sport activity. As a senior, Capehart began taking night classes on insurance, and after licensing and growing a clientele, the goal of completing his degree was no longer attainable.
After founding Capehart Insurance Services, the former student reached out about his transcript and learned that USC no longer offered a physical education degree. So for around 60 years, Capehart remained just two units short of a diploma.
“It’s always sort of bothered me,” Capehart said. “I guess I sort of felt unfulfilled, so to speak, or maybe felt like an imposter because everybody thought I was a graduate when in fact I wasn’t.”
It wasn’t until last year that the possibility of finally getting that degree became real. When Capehart met assistant athletic director Scott Wandzilak for lunch at the Annendale Golf Club in the summer of 2019, Wandzilak encouraged him to contact current Rossier Dean Karen Symms Gallagher. Wandzilak had previously worked with athletes who were unable to finish their degree in four years and wanted to return, and he had the connections to make the transition happen.
“It was such a unique circumstance that some intern across campus had to go in the basement of one of the libraries to find his records and all these different things,” Wandzilak said.
After the letter to Chang and months of coordination with Student Academic Services, Capehart was matched with assistant professor Dr. Angela Hasan for a directed research course in the spring.
Hasan first suggested Capehart complete the course online in January to avoid a commute from Pasadena. But Capehart insisted on meeting in person and showed up every week to USC’s City Center campus in a sport coat and tie to work one-on-one with his professor for more than four hours.
What began as a course studying the biographies of famous athletes turned into an internal study of Capehart’s own story. Hasan, who has been at USC for more than 11 years, was floored by her student’s performance.
“He had a lot of data to go through,” Hasan said. “He recorded hours of conversation that he even went back and transcribed and edited himself just in terms of reflections on his own thinking.”
The expectation for the autobiography assignment was set at around 30 pages. Capehart finished with 200.
His research in the classroom extended to topics beyond his own life. Capehart often arrived early and stayed after the class’ allotted time to speak with students about their studies, careers and home lives. After a semester with Capehart, Hasan saw firsthand what the University meant to its alumni.
“Throughout the years, even though he’s coming back now to finish this degree, he’s always associated still USC as kind of being an extended family,” Hasan said.
Wandzilak believed Capehart should tell his story to the class he was graduating with. Once his coursework and degree eligibility were confirmed, Wandzilak reached out to graduation coordinators and then asked Capehart to be a speaker at the student-athlete ceremony.
“He wanted to redo the speech over and over again because it was never good enough for him,” Wandzilak said.
On May 14, Capehart shared his story during a virtual graduation ceremony. A day later, he became the literal definition of a graduating senior 64 years after first becoming a Trojan.
His speech was simple, spread across seven double-spaced pages in large font. After a bulleted list of five life lessons, Capehart shared his final observation as a USC student from his Pasadena home.
“Remember, a winner listens, and a loser can’t wait for his turn to talk,” Capehart said. “And with that, I’m outta here!”