Like Father, Like Son | How One Man Ended Up in College With His Kids

In the basement of Katz Hall, Michael Monteleone contemplatively fills out his Public Speaking exam. After he finishes, he turns the test in and wishes the professor a good weekend, referring to his teacher by their first name. The other students are not privy to this same privilege, but then again the other students are not 53 years old with 40 years of job experience.

A grocer, an electronics technician, fire captain, electrician, and a father, Michael has held many titles and been active in the Kansas City community in a number of ways. Now, Michael is a student at UMKC pursuing a degree in mathematics.

Michael graduated from Kansas City’s Northeast High School in 1981 with what he described as “little effort and a C-average.” Monteleone did not have to time to focus wholeheartedly on high school and future plans because he was already a fairly independent man.

“Education wasn’t at the forefront of my mind during high school, as I came from the home of a single mother. Her name was Mary Ann, and she didn’t have a very good income even though she worked every day trying to provide for my little brother and me,” Monteleone recalled.

At 14, he began to work at the grocery store to relieve some pressure off of his mom. Four years later, high school graduation did not symbolize a threshold to higher education. Instead, it meant he could now work during the day.

“I can see how so many people can get stuck in that grind of doing what one needs to do to make it day-to-day, of letting your childhood dreams fade into the shadows, of simply doing what it takes to provide for yourself; in other words to survive,” said Monteleone. “This is what my mother had to do and naturally I was ending up in the same position. Not by choice, but by necessity.”

Michael talked about always knowing in the back of his head that he was not working towards his full potential, but felt he could not take the time away from work.

Michael switched back to evening shifts at the grocery store so he could attend a technical school and received his associate’s degree in electronics. He obtained a solid job at GE, but three years later GE moved their operation to Mexico. At this point, employees were given the opportunity to stay on for one additional year to train their job replacements. At the end of this training they would be let go.

“This wasn’t okay with me so I started looking for a job while I was still working for GE. When I was accepted into the fire academy, I just dropped the bomb on GE and told them to stick it,” said Monteleone.

Although he was now starting his third career, Monteleone was still only 25 years old. The Kansas City Fire Department became a large part of his life for the next 17 years.

“[Being a firefighter] doesn’t seem as dangerous after a while, but you have to remind yourself regularly of the real dangers so you don’t become complacent and make a life-altering mistake. What was great about this job was the security, retirement benefits and the unique hours that we have,” said Monteleone. “We work 24-hour shifts and then we are off for 48 hours. The best part of the job was becoming a member of a strong union that worked tirelessly on its members’ behalf.”

After Michael went through a divorce, the KCFD was no longer a sufficient means to an end due to new financial strain. He started work as an apprentice electrician in his time off in addition to attending Johnson County Community College to learn more about electrical technology.

“I would leave work at the fire department in the morning and go to work doing electrical work, and when I got off in the evening at my electrical job I went to school at night,” said Monteleone. “I didn’t mind because it was something to keep me busy since I was alone now, but the best part was that I rediscovered how much I liked to learn.”

This discovery prompted Monteleone to take more classes. Initially he didn’t know what courses to pursue. Thankfully, inspiration struck.

“I remembered how fascinated I was while watching my favorite science shows on T.V. when the scientists scribbled mathematics on their blackboards. So I wanted to see if I could learn to understand what all those scribbles meant.” And so it began.

At 45, he took algebra 1 with algebra 2, college algebra, and trigonometry in succession. Trepidation hit when he realized it was now time for calculus, the math of those big time television scientists.

“The one thing I had conditioned myself for in the fire department came in useful from here on out,” said Monteleone. “I had conditioned myself to never give up because when things get tough you don’t just give up as a fireman, there’s no one else to call. When you pull up on the fire truck and people are screaming that their loved ones are trapped inside that house, behind that wall of smoke and flames, you suck it up and give it everything you got and march forward. So I pushed through Calc I, II, and III with hard-earned A’s.”

Monteleone made the decision to transfer to UMKC to complete the higher math courses necessary for a degree he had never intended to declare. He has now finished all his math requirements and is working on general education classes to fulfill a Bachelor of Science in mathematics.

“At times I do feel weird about being an undergraduate at my age, “said Monteleone. “I often wonder what the young people think. I hope they aren’t creeped out by some old man sitting next to them in class, and really, it’s been a good experience for me to share some time with the younger generations. It has allowed me to develop a different perspective.”

Although Michael has a lot on his plate, he is adapting. His oldest son, also named Michael, now runs a good portion of his business. Down time during his 24-hour fire department shifts is now spent studying, and what better way to keep in touch with his two youngest kids than by attending the same school at the same time?

“My daughter Alicia is working on a BS in biology and my youngest, Ross, is working on a BS in math like me,” said Monteleone. “My two kids and I have a lot of things to relate about since we are all in school together, and school usually dominates our conversations now that all three of us seem to have the same desire for higher learning.”

Michael expressed the pride he felt that his kids manage to seem less stressed about school than he does. He never received encouragement from previous employers to pursue a higher degree and he was never offered any aid, financial or otherwise, that would allow him to more easily balance school and professional life. While raising his own children, he has constantly encouraged them to reach for the stars, use their minds, and never forget their capabilities.

Finally, all can relate to the practiced responses given to those that ask, “What’s after graduation?” Michael’s response however, is a unique one.

“I’m only going to school for my own intellectual enrichment, not for any other reason. Not to change careers, not to get a job, not to make more money; only because I’ve always wanted to and never really had the chance,” said Monteleone. “When I get my degree, first, I’m going to hang it on the wall. And second, I’m going to start wearing a sport coat with a pocket protector in the pocket. I’m going after something I’ve always wanted.”

“I already let 53 years slip by me and there’s no way I’m going to waste any more time. I don’t believe in fairy tales, and I think when my life is over, it’s over. So, I cherish my opportunity to look upon the cosmos, and I want to look back on my life when that time comes and feel good about how I lived, feel good about how I treated all of nature, and most of all I want to feel like I learned something about its reality while I had the rare chance.”

ctadokoro@unews.com

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