Posthumous college degrees earn ovation for student's parents

Wednesday, May 22, 2002

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Even while leukemia ravaged his body, Charles Linnenbringer persisted with his college education -- pursuing five degrees at once at the University of Missouri.

His illness finally forced him to leave school this winter and he died in March. But his accomplishments were honored Sunday as his parents, Mary and Jerry Linnenbringer, led the procession of graduates at commencement for the College of Arts and Sciences on the Columbia campus.

The audience stood and clapped as the Linnenbringers crossed the stage to accept four of the degrees their son earned in just five years. A journalism degree was recognized Saturday at that school's commencement.

"How proud we are of Charles, not just for his academic achievements but as a person," his mother said after the commencement.

The Wildwood resident had hoped to pursue a doctoral degree when he graduated from high school in 1996 and began college. But narrowing down what to study was a challenge.

"He was interested in a lot of things, and one thing sort of led to another," said Mary Linnenbringer. "He started as an English major and was in the Honors College, and he was interested in the classics. So he thought, 'It's not that many more classes, I could major in that,' and one thing kind of lead to another."

Soon, Charles Linnenbringer was majoring in three subjects and had decided he wanted to also earn bachelor's degrees in journalism and psychology.

Linnenbringer eventually decided he wanted to become a counselor and would pursue his doctorate in psychology.

Leukemia diagnosed

Everything changed in July 2000 when Linnenbringer visited the university health center. Doctors suspected leukemia and the hunch was soon confirmed at University Hospital.

"He was pretty stunned, as were we all," Mary Linnenbringer said. "He was, I think, more concerned for the rest of us than for himself about how we would handle it."

Linnenbringer dropped the remainder of his summer classes and temporarily returned to his home outside St. Louis to receive treatment. He returned to Columbia for the fall semester, while awaiting a bone marrow donor.

He left the university again in January 2001 when a donor was found. But complications followed the transplant, as he suffered from a condition in which the new immune system given to the patient in the bone marrow transplant begins to attack the body.

When he was finally healthy enough to return to school, he had completed the English, classics and history degrees and needed just a semester-worth of courses for the psychology and journalism degrees.

But he stayed at school only two weeks before the new immune system again attacked his body, and he died on March 12.

Upon learning of his death, university officials decided to waive the remaining hours and award the psychology and journalism degrees posthumously.

"What you want to do in a situation like this is celebrate what is positive," said Ted Tarkow, associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. "And what is positive here is that this man, while facing a terminal disease, never lost sight of academic interest."

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