It's never too late (or early) to graduate
Nearly 60 years separated Andi Baritchi and June Woodruff at graduation
by Sherry Wodraska Neaves
College graduates take pride in their accomplishmentsat any age. Andi Baritchi and June Woodruff know that sense of satisfaction, for they are among the youngest and oldest students ever to graduate from UTA.
Baritchi, who entered college at 15, earned his bachelor's degree at 17 and his master's at 18. Now 20, he plans to complete his doctoral degree in computer science this year.
Woodruff took a different path, interrupting her early college studies to marry, raise a family and pursue a career, then returning in her 70s to complete a long-awaited degree in organ performance.
Computer science and engineering Professor Diane Cook met Baritchi in an introductory course when he was a teen-aged freshman. "He interacted very well with the other students," she said. She has since served as adviser for both his master's and Ph.D. programs.
"He was the youngest person ever to get a master's here," she noted. "He's a very hard worker and very motivated. He's always interested in learning new topics."
Woodruff, too, is a dedicated worker. To obtain sufficient practice time on the Music Department's only performance-worthy organ, she often came to campus at 6:30 or 7 a.m., commuting from her home in Rockwall, more than an hour away.
"When I retired, I was determined to finish my education," she said. "When you're older, you don't have time to mess around. You're very serious about what you're doing."
The keyboards to success
Woodruff began her college career at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio. Through a lifetime filled with family and work, she continued to play. She still remembers the first time she touched a keyboard, at age 7.
"I started piano lessons, and I told my mom and dad, 'This is the happiest day of my life.' "
The joy of music continued as Woodruff played for her church and continued studying organ with area professionals. Several times she had the opportunity to attend master classes overseas. During one series of classes in France, she played the organ at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and at the famed gothic cathedral in Chartres.
"It was such a thrill just to play them," she said.
Baritchi enjoys playing a keyboard of a different nature. His dissertation project involves using artificial intelligence to improve fraud detection. The process offers a multitude of applications, from detecting credit card fraud to preventing hackers from disrupting computer networks. It may also help telecommunications companies reduce calling card fraud.
"It's fun because it's a kind of game," he said. "You're working to make the computer smarter than the crooks."
A rather smart fellow himself, Baritchi has always felt at ease with his classmates and professors, even though most are much older.
"College is such a diverse place," he said. "Everybody is very accepting of everybody else. My first year was a bit difficult because I didn't drive, but after that, no problem."
Throughout his academic career, Baritchi's family has been his greatest support. His father, Dan, knew that something had to change when Andi was in ninth grade and the high school principal said the school had nothing left to offer.
Andi had completed every advanced math and science class available, and school officials suggested that he seek admission to the University.
"The principal, his adviser and we, his parents, felt that for him to stay another three years in high school was worthless," Dan Baritchi said.
So, Andi entered UTA.
"I really appreciated the fact that I was given the opportunity to come here early," he said. "And after I finished the master's, I decided to stay because I have a really great adviser, Dr. Cook.
"Some people say that it's not good to get all three degrees from the same place, but it didn't make much sense for me to change schools just for the doctorate when I was deeply involved with the research here."
Woodruff also appreciates the professors she encountered at UTA. She completed her organ performance degree with music Professor Linton Powell.
"She contacted me about playing an audition," Dr. Powell said. "Of course I had no idea what age she was. When she came in I was a little surprised, but when she sat down and played that piece, my jaw absolutely dropped. I was so amazed. I thought, 'Where have you been?'
"Once I heard her play just a few measures, I knew that not only was she going to graduate, but she was going to be one of the best organ students we've ever had."
In order to finish faster, Woodruff attended classes year-round. She also became involved in extracurricular activities as a member of both Golden Key and Alpha Chi.
"When you've been in the workforce and then go back to school, your drive is of such a greater magnitude," she said. "Life's experiences give you insight into the importance of education."
Woodruff's daughter, Cara Baker, drove her to campus every day, rising well before dawn to make those early organ practice times.
The mother/daughter team became devoted to the school after a lost-and-found incident. Woodruff habitually takes off her rings for organ practice, and one day her wedding ring went missing after the early-morning rehearsal. She searched everywhere. Finally she tried the music office, where the ring was waiting, turned in by a fellow student.
"Mom thinks UTA is a pretty special school with pretty special people," Baker said.
And Dr. Powell thinks Woodruff is a very special student. "She practiced faithfully, hours and hours and hours. Throughout her study here, she played the best of the organ repertoirethe most difficult pieces."
Baker said her mother loses herself in the music. "She absolutely forgets about the people. The first time she played for the other students, they were just blown away. She can play the foot pedals almost faster than she can play with her hands."
Only one small setback worried Dr. Powell. Midway through her degree requirements, Woodruff fell and broke her hip.
It's all about options
Soon-to-be Dr. Baritchi doesn't plan to slow down any time soon, either. His current research is in collaboration with a national telecommunications company, and he plans to move into that industry after graduation. He's also toying with teaching and starting his own company.
"I want to keep my options open," he said.
Thanks to Woodruff and her family, UTA organ students now enjoy more options as well.
As a student, Woodruff practiced on the organ in Irons Recital Hall because it was the only performance-worthy instrument in the department. The University had bought a 1931 organ, originally from a Fort Worth convent, at auction and it would have made a fine studio instrument, but it was in pieces, stacked in a storage room. The department lacked sufficient funds to begin restoration.
Woodruff determined to do something about it. She asked her husband to organize a fund-raising campaign to get the organ reassembled.
"Dad put the entire marketing package together," Baker said. "Their initial desire to get the awareness campaign going got everybody to take a second look at that organ."
Today, thanks to the Woodruffs' jumpstart and a significant donation from Richard Cooper of Arlington, the fully restored Richard and Nancy Cooper Memorial Organ now sits in Dr. Powell's practice studio. It was dedicated in 2001, a year after Woodruff graduated.
"I was so hoping that it would be completed while I was in school," she said. "But they've invited me back to play it."
Dr. Powell's star student is welcome any time.
"We're very happy that she passed our way," he said.
And Dr. Cook sees her computer prodigy in much the same way. "He's really rare, and it's great to work with him."