Meet The Army Veteran Set To Graduate With A College Degree Just Days Before 80th Birthday


July 20, 2023

No matter what happens in life, never give up!

79-year-old Reverend Willie Ryals is living proof that it’s never too late to pursue a dream. During his formative years, Ryals was enrolled at Florida A&M University’s Developmental Research School, dropping out to pursue a career as a singer with a number of bands, Blavity reports. Life on the road proved challenging and in 1962, Ryals enlisted in the U.S. Army. He was discharged just two years later and a botched home break in would change the course of his life forever. 

While defending himself from intruders, Ryals landed himself in prison, sentenced to 10 and 20 concurrent year sentences for aggravated manslaughter. While incarcerated, Ryals kept dreaming and prepared for his eventual release. He finished high school while imprisoned and began taking some college courses. After being released early in 1971, he realized he wanted to study criminal justice. 


“While I was in prison, I saw a need for criminal justice reform. There are too many young Blacks going to jail for crimes that they didn’t commit, and there needs to be some changes,” said Ryals.

However, it would be decades before he got an opportunity to pursue that dream. He settled into life with his wife and family and became pastor of Zion Hope Community Baptist Church in Gadsden County, Florida, where he still serves. In 2021, Ryals decided it was time to revisit his past ambitions and enroll in online classes to pursue his degree. Now he has come full circle, set to graduate with his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from American Intercontinental University. To make matters sweeter, he’ll walk the stage just three days before his 80th birthday. 

“I’m happy for myself, because my father always wanted me to go after a degree. He’s passed and gone, but I’m keeping this promise,” Ryals told reporters. 


Finishing school at his age was not without its challenges. Ryals still had to keep up with his pastoral duties while also taking care of his wife Mandy Woodard Ryals. Despite the setbacks, his wife said she’s really proud of him. 

“He would miss some of his classes because of my doctor’s appointments and would have to catch up, but he never gave up. He works all night and sometimes I would have to prop his legs up for the swelling, but he would still go after it. I’m proud of him and very, very happy,” said Mrs. Ryals. 

His wife and daughter Marionette Taylor are set to join him for the graduation festivities. Ryals will accept his college diploma at a ceremony held in Atlanta on July 21st, then he’ll start celebrating eight decades of a life well lived. 


Congratulations Mr. Ryals!

Cover photo: Meet the army veteran set to graduate with college degree just days before 80th birthday/Photo Courtesy of Tallahassee Democrat

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