NEW BRITAIN — When Ron Farina graduated from Central Connecticut State University three months ago, he was completing a task he had started a half-century earlier.
Farina, 68, was honored Tuesday by CCSU faculty, local veterans and U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal for what his friends call astonishing determination.
"This is a powerful lesson for all of us about perseverance and patriotism, and about personal strength," Blumenthal said at a ceremony where he presented a framed diploma to Farina.
Farina's time at CCSU was broken up first by two years in the Marine Corps in Vietnam, then by decisions to build a family and a career. It wasn't until 2010 that Farina — then 63 and living in Vernon — enrolled again in writing and music classes.
"You're never too old, you never have a reason not to try," Farina said Tuesday. "One of the things you learn in the military is that you can do things you're not supposed to be able to do."
Several veterans who are taking classes at CCSU said they see Farina's story as an inspiration for other veterans, particularly those whose education was set aside when they into the service.
"I told your story to a few guys the other night," Jeff Blankenship told Farina after the ceremony.
Blankenship, who spent 25 years in the Navy and is a member of the Disabled American Veterans Chapter 7, said more veterans should make use of benefits through Connecticut's tuition-waiver plan or the federal G.I. Bill.
"If you don't want to go full time, you can go part time. You don't have to even want a degree — you can take a few classes," Blankenship said at CCSU's veterans center, a spacious lounge and study area in Willard Hall.
Joe Rapisarda, a New Britain veteran of Afghanistan and president of the school's Student Veterans Organization, said too many people who served in the military don't know about how extensively the state and federal governments will help them with higher education.
"I hope every veteran who wants a degree takes advantage of this. I did," Farina said.
Farina was 18 and not yet halfway though his freshman year when he enlisted in December 1965. President Johnson was stepping up troop levels in Vietnam. Farina recalls an abbreviated boot camp at Parris Island followed by most of the next two years in Vietnam.
When he returned to the United States, Farina didn't resume classes. Instead, he went into the workforce and eventually built a successful career as a personnel consultant.
Decades later, he enrolled at CCSU and took a non-fiction writing class where his wartime experiences played a central role. Students were assigned to write essays telling the stories of Vietnam veterans they interviewed.
"We had the good fortune to have a Vietnam veteran in our class, Ron Farina, a former Marine sergeant who served in-country," Professor Mary Collins wrote in the introduction to a compilation of the essays. "In a special section, 'Veteran to Veteran,' Ron explores the moment when he shares his own Vietnam experience with another veteran for the first time since he left the service."
Farina's writing has won awards, and he is now seeking to publish a memoir about Vietnam. He is a volunteer music teacher and runs his own music studio.
"My hope is this is an example for other veterans — it's part of why my memoir is 'So Far From Done,'" Farina said. "We're still in pretty good shape, we still have a lot of life to live."