If Duke's student body is celebrated for a spectrum of skin tones and nationalities, it's soon to take on a new dimension.
Last August, Richard Vestal Jr., a sophomore transfer student, went to Spanish I, his first class at Duke. Last June, he turned forty.
Vestal likes to say that he took the scenic route to higher education and saw a lot along the way. But the trip began with an unintended detour. As a senior at West Forsyth High School in Clemmons, North Carolina, Vestal was a star football player, a kicker and a tight end. Not once in his four years did he miss the uprights or drop a pass. He was a gifted student, enamored of electronics, but he chose to concentrate on football, earning a scholarship to North Carolina State.
And then life, as he puts it, "just all fell apart." In the semi-final game against East Forsyth High, Vestal was hit hard. His knee was shattered. N.C. State dropped the offer. "I was not real happy at the time," he recalls. "And it only got worse." A native of Burlington, North Carolina, Vestal decided, upon graduation, to attend a community college in the area while he rehabbed his knee for a comeback. Then he took an even harder hit--in his car.
Vestal doesn't recall going through the windshield of his '73 Super Beetle or catching the wipers between the eyes, but he got 442 stitches to remind him. The Beetle, too, was totaled. "I loved that car. It was red with a '40 Ford front end on it. Used to race it up on Farmington Dragway, at the 'Bug Bash.' "
After six months of painkillers and accumulating bills, Vestal didn't have time or money left for college. So he went to work. For the next fifteen years, he held a slew of odd jobs: managerof a Radio Shack store, computer specialist, construction worker, furniture salesman, electrician. The son of a welder, Vestal was good with his hands. He installed fire systems for restaurants. He joined a pit crew for Johnson and Johnson Racing. He learned to cook with a caterer. He once supplied power for a Government Mule concert. One time, after a job with an ad agency in Nashville fell through, he found himself waiting tables in a Red Lobster in Opryland.
Sitting in a restaurant in Durham, Vestal summed up his experiences in a single line: "I can fix the heating and air. I can fix the floor. And I can fix our lunch."
One thing he never considered doing was attending Duke. In 2003, he returned to school at Alamance Community College in pursuit of his electrician's certification. "I was going to do that full time from then on," Vestal says. Instead, he fell in love with biomechanics, and his grades showed it. His report card had never looked so good. He made the President's List (twice) and the National Dean's List, and was awarded "Best in Science" by the Alamance faculty. His classmates called him "4.0."
One day last spring, the head of the culinary department at Alamance--whom Vestal had befriended through his catering experience and whose husband teaches at Duke--suggested that he apply to Duke. So he did. "I was just hoping they wouldn't laugh too hard," he says. "When I got in, I remember looking up at the Chapel and thinking, 'This is just unbelievable.' But I'm getting used to it. And I tell myself, It's not done until I get that degree.
Not even close to done. Not until it's in my hands."
Richard Vestal Jr. '07: Back to School
November 30, 2004