ROME — Six weeks shy of his birthday, Giuseppe Paternò fulfilled the dream of a lifetime: He got a university degree.
“Don’t get lost because you find obstacles — because there will always be obstacles,” Mr. Paternò told reporters after he graduated with honors last week from the University of Palermo, where he received a degree in history and philosophy. “You have to be strong.”
So strong, in Mr. Paternò’s case, that the birthday that loomed as he reached his lifetime goal was his 97th.
Mr. Paternò’s graduation has inspired news coverage around the world, partly because of his age. But he has also drawn attention because his life story speaks of commitment, a theme that has resonated as millions of schoolchildren in Italy and elsewhere face extraordinary uncertainty amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Mr. Paternò “transmits faith in the future,” said Rossella Cancila, his thesis adviser and a professor of history at the University of Palermo. “He’s a model to follow.”
“Too many interviews, too many compliments,” he said during yet another interview on Wednesday, acknowledging that perhaps he was overwhelmed.
But Mr. Paternò has seemed to get around the many obstacles he has faced in his lifetime. Studying had been his passion since he was a small child, he said, “but unfortunately life betrayed me.”
Born in Palermo in 1923, the first of seven children in a “very poor family,” Mr. Paternò began working soon after finishing elementary school. “The family was large, there was only one paycheck, we were under fascism, and times were tough,” he said.
Eventually, he ended up at a publishing house where an enlightened boss persuaded his father to send him back to school for a three-year vocational degree.
Mr. Paternò then worked for an insurance agency while he took private classes to become a telegraph operator. He used skills from the operator job when he was drafted into the navy in World War II. The job also opened doors to the State Railways company, where he worked for more than four decades.
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In 1951, with a wife and two small children at home, he got his high school diploma as a surveyor, which led to a desk job at State Railways.
It was only after he retired, in the mid-1980s, that he returned to his books, taking theology courses through the Archdiocese of Palermo after a chance meeting with a philosophy professor who urged him to follow his passion.
He got around to returning to school in 2017 — after completing another goal: writing an autobiography and seeing it published.
“I wasn’t one to bring my grandchildren to the playground,” said Mr. Paternò, speaking not of his lack of fondness for them but of his lack of interest in the usual grandfatherly activities.
There doesn’t seem to be any hard feelings. Three of his four grandchildren and one of his great-grandchildren attended his July 29 graduation ceremony, which was led by Fabrizio Micari, the chancellor of the University of Palermo.
Mr. Micari congratulated Mr. Paternò for finishing his degree with a near-perfect grade point average. “It’s an extraordinary, exceptional result for any young man,” the chancellor said, with a hint of humor.
Mr. Micari called for a round of applause when he announced that Mr. Paternò was graduating with honors, bestowing a red-ribboned laurel wreath on the graduate’s head, an Italian tradition.
In addition to being an inspiration for the university’s students, “A graduate at this age, who has all this passion, this enthusiasm, and this talent is certainly an extraordinary spokesman for our university,” Mr. Micari told reporters later.
Mr. Paternò’s son, Ninni Paternò, said that the family had not expected all the attention.
“It’s incredible,” the younger Paternò said of his father. “He achieved his objective, but he didn’t mean to end up in newspapers around the world.”
Mr. Paternò’s thesis on Palermo intertwined the city’s history with his own.
“He dove into the thesis, especially during the lockdown,” said Ms. Cancila.
“His story is proof that dreams can come true and that you can remain young — if not in age at least in spirit — if you cultivate interests,” she added.
Italy’s university system is based on a three-year degree, followed by a two-year master’s course. University officials are hoping that Mr. Paternò will continue his studies.
He isn’t so sure.
“I have to confess that in this moment, I don’t know whether I would tackle it with the same spirit,” he said on Wednesday, noting that all the attention had been a bit wearying.
Still, Mr. Paternò said, he would probably enroll anyway. “I want to keep my options open.”