‘I’ll leave a legend’: 67-year-old UNCW graduate lives up to his promise after returning to college

Updated: May. 8, 2021 at 7:26 PM EDT
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - UNCW graduate Phil McGee, who is currently 67 years old, is not one to leave anything unfinished, no matter how long it takes, but dropping out of UNCW in 1977 was not a hard decision.

“My mind wasn’t on school, you know, my grades weren’t very well,” McGee said. “I even got a letter from the Dean asking me to stay home a semester to figure out if college was right for me.”

At the time, McGee decided to pursue a career with Lowe’s Companies, but the decision to drop out of college would follow him for the rest of his life.

“I thought about it all my life and it was in the back of my mind as something that I just did not finish,” he said.

In 2015, McGee had a heart attack that gave him the final push to go back to school.

“They were getting ready to take me in to do the stents — I was laying there — the only thing that kept coming up was of course my family, I love them, and I wanted to spend more time with them, but I kept thinking about not finishing things,” McGee said. “College was it. I didn’t finish it and it was on my mind and I wanted to go back and finish.”

So in 2017, 40 years after dropping out of UNCW, McGee returned to the registrar’s office to enroll in classes again. They looked at his grades from the 70′s and told him he was basically going to have to start over. McGee had no problem with that.

But what McGee did have a problem with was his fellow classmates not seeing him as their peer. He didn’t fit in the way he wanted to.

“They thought I was a professor and I didn’t want to be a professor I wanted to be one of them,” he said.

So he did something no professor would ever do: he decided to rush Pi Kappa Alpha, the same fraternity his son, Hunter, had been a part of when he attended UNCW.

“One Sunday afternoon I went around and found the fraternity house, knocked on the front door and they were scattering they didn’t know who this old guy was,” McGee said.

The fraternity unanimously decided to let him because of his legacy status, but McGee made them a promise.

“I said I’ll come in as a legacy, but when I leave this campus I’ll leave a legend and I’ve lived up to that,” McGee said.

His fellow brothers can back him up on that claim.

“It has always just been an inspiration to just see him succeed and just do what he does where he works many many hours during the week at his job while also being able to balance school and then also being able to devote time to our fraternity and still be able to attend all our events,” said graduate Landon Calton, a Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity brother. “Anyone on this campus and anyone in the UNCW community they know Magoo and they know him by name and he’s become a legend.”

“Magoo” is the nickname that McGee has earned during his time at the university.

“Honestly, I don’t think I would have had the full college experience without him,” said graduate Ryan Ewald, a Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity brother. “He’s really taught us a lot of different things that is almost — legend almost doesn’t even do the whole thing, doesn’t even do it justice, but we all know he’s a legend.”

A legend because McGee truly juggled it all: fraternity parties and functions, school work, and traveling 900 to 1,200 miles a week for his own business.

“I would spend many a time in truck stops with my computer up on my dash board, my notebook and me taking notes, McDonald’s because they had internet if my internet wasn’t working and I’d do my classes,” McGee said.

That hard work paid off. McGee graduated Saturday from UNCW with a 3.8 GPA and Cum Laude honors. He earned a degree in business.

“To get that program the other day and see the honor of Cum Laude under my name we just both teared up it was just you know, the hard work paid off,” he said.

McGee says some of his most meaningful times at UNCW were the deep, heartfelt conversations he had with his fraternity brothers.

He also had a great support system along the way: his wife Charlie.

“She would always give me the ride to the parties, but would not stay up late enough I had to Uber home,” he said. “She was a great support group for me. There have been times when I wanted to quit. When the stress of school and homework and exams and all that got so much I wanted to quit and she was the one who told me don’t you do it.”

His message for everyone: it’s never too late to finish.

“If you cut the grass and you just cut the front yard, you’re not finished. You got to cut both the front and the back to be finished,” McGee said. “If you start school and you don’t finish, finish it.”

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