CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Completing a journey spanning more than half a century, Peyton (Perry) Potetick today received his master’s degree in education from Harvard University, making him the first person to earn a degree from each of the eight Ivy League schools.
When asked how he felt now that his quest is complete, Potetick replied, “tired.”
Potetick’s tour of the Ivy League began before the league was even formed. A returning war veteran, Potetick took advantage of the GI Bill and completed his undergraduate education in 1950 at Princeton in his home state of New Jersey. Four years later, Princeton formally joined with seven other old, prestigious, wealthy institutions in the Northeast to form an athletic league that would compete more for Nobels and Pulitzers than for Heismans (even though Heisman himself attended two of the Ivies) and whose name would become synonymous with cardigans, elbow patches, tweed and aristocratic exclusivity, at least until the late 1970s.
Following graduation, Potetick landed a job with Mallblight, Inc., a real estate development firm in Trenton. Eyeing a position in upper management, Potetick pursued an MBA degree at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.
“It seemed like a good move at the time,” recalled Potetick. “I really thought I wanted to spend my career in the strip-mall business ravaging suburbs.”
Mallblight made his decision a bit easier by footing the bill for his education. “All they wanted in return was a commitment of 10 years when I was done,” he said.
Potetick paid half his debt before realizing that his interests lay elsewhere. He wasn’t exactly certain where, but surely somewhere else, he thought.
That overwhelming desire to do something — anything — else led him to the inexorable conclusion to attend law school, which he did at Yale. Potetick plodded his way through Yale, to the extent one can plod through Yale, and graduated in 1962. He never did practice law, however.
“It dawned on me that I was more enticed by the prospect of studying law than practicing it,” Potetick admitted. “Actually, I just wanted to be back in school. That feeling never really left.”
Armed now with three Ivy degrees, certainly not by design at this point, Potetick began teaching business law part-time at Columbia while supplementing his income by tutoring Albanian undergraduates and writing for an underground newspaper called The Happy Hippy.
“Those days at the Hippy, man…they were pretty far out,” said Armand Arme, a fellow Hippy writer. “Perry was just about the most bitchin’ cat going.”
Bitten by the newspaper bug and buoyed by his favorable reviews, Potetick enrolled in Columbia’s journalism school, taking courses here and there while he figured out how to put all his education and work experience together. He earned his fourth degree in 1968, reaching the halfway point in his Ivy journey, and set his sights on the fourth estate.
But love soon intervened. He met his future wife, Anna Fora, a Columbia doctoral student in Icelandic philology, falling for her straight, stringy hair and bottle-bottom glasses. “She was a true beauty,” remembered Potetick, “by the 1960s definition of the term.”
Fora found a faculty position at NYU, and Potetick managed to wangle a job in the assistant to the associate provost’s office collating tenure review forms. Before long, he and Fora married, and their twin sons, Larry and Gary, arrived. Potetick tended to their needs while plotting his future.
“I tried to get Perry a teaching job at NYU,” Fora said, “but everyone considered him overqualified. I tried to encourage his writing career, which spit and sputtered as much as Larry and Gary. And I tried to talk him into pursuing another degree at NYU, given, you know, his love for education and all, but he said it wasn’t an Ivy.”
“It wasn’t an Ivy,” echoed Potetick, who began to realize his life’s purpose. “I started to think, ‘Hey, I have half of the Ivy League covered, so why not keep going?’ ”
The couple toiled awhile in New York before Fora saw an opening in Icelandic philology at Dartmouth, one of two such positions she’d seen in seven years. “It was a sign,” realized Fora. “It was a sign that Perry’s quest was more than just an odd obsession.”
So off they went to New Hampshire, where Fora thrived and Larry and Gary became left- and right-wingers for the local youth hockey club and showed an early interest in politics. Meanwhile, Potetick, by a sheer stroke of luck and a good bit of pluck, got a job at Tuck archiving the financial records of Dartmouth alumnus Theodor Geisel. Money remained fairly scarce in the Potetick household, and Perry’s student loans came home to roost.
“I decided it was time to return to school once again to keep the loans at bay,” Potetick said. “Plus, Dartmouth let me pursue a degree for free, so it was a win-win.”
Potetick’s Ivy tally rose to five in 1988 when he completed his Master of Arts in Liberal Studies degree with a focus on international pan-globalization.
“The world was my oyster,” said Potetick, who continued to diligently pursue a career worthy of his intellectual investments now that he’d earned degrees from 62.5 percent of the Ivy League.
His plan to finally buckle down and establish a consultancy focused on international business journalism libel law was dashed when Fora was denied tenure at Dartmouth, forcing the couple to uproot Larry and Gary and seek greener pastures. As fate would have it, Fora’s former flame, Rick Javik, who recently had become head of Nordic studies at Ithaca College, invited her to join the new department.
The disruption put Potetick’s employment plans on hold but rekindled his passion for Ivy completeness. Nearby Cornell represented conquest number six and offered him an opportunity to pursue yet another utilitarian degree, an M.F.A. While Fora immersed her students in Vikings, Ibsen and cured cuttlefish, Potetick workshopped his short stories and creative nonfiction. He felt a fervor not realized since his days at The Happy Hippy, and he was, once again, happy.
“We were happy,” recounts Fora. “We were happy, but, alas, it wouldn’t last.”
Just as Potetick was finishing his M.F.A. and Fora was in the throes of a course on Norwegian hammer throwers, the flame between Fora and Javik was rekindled and romance began anew. Cuckolded, Potetick departed Ithaca a week after graduation, leaving Larry and Gary and his idyllic Ithaca existence for a small studio on a hill in Providence.
“Those were some black days, and I was feeling blue,” Potetick said, “but I soon discovered a home at Brown.”
In 1995 he enrolled in Brown’s graduate program in American studies in an effort to complement his international pan-globalization degree and obtain pure academic hegemony. Potetick sustained a relatively meager income by teaching writing to Latvian orphans and polyeurothaning hardwood floors at the local square-dance hall.
“We were a bit reluctant to admit Perry at first,” said Steve Rogers, former head of Brown’s American studies department. “He was of course qualified academically, but he just seemed to be such an intellectual… vagabond. After some downright ugly debates among the faculty, we totally bought into his quest to touch every Ivy base, so it became a no-brainer.”
Potetick finished his master’s thesis on “The Sociocultural Ramifications of Culture in Society: Circular Reasoning for Reason’s Sake” and graduated from Brown in 1998, receiving the department’s highest honors for his thesis. His mentors begged him to stay on and teach random undergraduate courses -- and poly the faculty lounge floor -- but Potetick declined.
“I really loved Brown,” said Potetick, “but it was time to leave the academy for a real job. I felt I was finally qualified. For what, I didn’t know.”
Over the next decade, Potetick worked his way north along Route 95, stopping for stints as a batman for the Pawtucket Red Sox, a carnival pitchman in Attleboro, a concession stand operator in Foxboro, a conjugal visit coordinator in Walpole, and an assistant embalmer in Dedham. All along, one goal remained.
“I needed to conquer the White Whale,” he revealed. “I knew all roads led to Cambridge.”
Cambridge is home to MIT, which happens not to be an Ivy, and it’s also home to Harvard, the eighth and final Ivy necessary to complete Potetick’s impossible dream.
The question for Potetick became which degree to pursue. He’d covered business, law, international relations, literature and American studies and a few others informally. After an excruciating day of thought, he concluded there was only one discipline that could culminate his education: education.
In the fall of 2012, Potetick began his studies at Harvard. He diligently dove into the one-year master’s program, finishing comfortably in 18 months. At commencement, Harvard’s president singled out Potetick for his unwavering commitment to learning and for completing his remarkable journey through the Ivy League.
“The thrust of what Perry set out to accomplish was educational enlightenment and a life explored,” said Harvard’s head honcho. “But he turned it into so much more than that, did he not? For Perry, the thirst for learning became an unreasonable and — let’s be honest — frivolous pursuit of academic credentials as trophies to be mantled. Can there be a better testament to the human appetite for self-aggrandizement? For this, Perry surely must be celebrated.”
There to celebrate with Potetick were Fora, Larry and Gary. Javik was on a whaling expedition near Spitsbergen and sent his best wishes.
“Finally,” Fora said with a smile. “Finally you can die in peace.”
When asked what he planned to do now that he’d achieved his goal, Potetick looked pensive. After a pause, he suddenly brightened.
“With my degree in education and my certification,” he said, “I’m finally qualified to teach first grade. Yeah, that’s what I want to do. I want to shape young minds, to inspire a new generation of strivers, of dreamers, of credential collectors. I’m living proof that with hard work and a bit of good fortune, anyone can convince an admissions committee. After all, isn’t that what life’s all about?”
Mark J. Drozdowski is director of university communications at the University of New Haven. This is the latest installment of an occasional humor column, Special Edification.