Undergrads in their mid-40s aren’t exactly commonplace at a university, but then again there’s really nothing common about the last decade of Earl Boyce’s life. A student in the EIU Department of Art, Boyce is attending Eastern thanks to GI benefits he earned from joining the Army … at the age of 36.
That alone makes Boyce’s story intriguing enough, even before you hear the reason he walked away from his commercial art career to become the guy known as “Grandpa” during basic training. That’s a story that began when his son, Jordan, came home from high school one day with his own ideas of enlisting.
“He said: ‘Dad, I’m going to be going to college,’” Boyce remembers. “’I talked to a recruiter, and I think I might go into the Army. They offered me $40,000 for tuition.’”
Not wanting Jordan’s motivation to be purely driven by money, Boyce wrestled with the idea for a couple days before going to speak to the recruiter himself. Resolved to find some other way to make college happen for his son, he instead found himself being recruited.
“I just kind of blew it off and went home,” said Boyce. “Then I thought about it. This is not his generation’s fight. Why are we sending our kids over (to Iraq)?
"So I called this recruiter back and said: 'Are you serious?' He said: 'Yeah, I'm dead serious. Come in and we can get you set up.'"
And he did. Boyce enlisted with the intention of earning the tuition money himself and passing it along to his son, in the process putting his own sign business on hiatus.
“I was probably one of the oldest people in basic training at the time,” recalled Boyce. “They actually had to give me two waivers to go in because the cutoff age was 34, I believe. But I ran around with a bunch of 19- and 20-year-olds and kicked some butt.”
Boyce found he could really excel in the structure of military life. Then his commanders learned he was an artist and provided reasons to feel even more at home overseas.
“I was in a tank doing all this crazy stuff and the next thing I know I’m making sculptures for the secretary of state and all these different things for the identity of the 25th Infantry,” said Boyce. “They wanted to keep me in the army, promote me, and actually make me an officer and put me in what’s called the Army Art Program.”
It was never Boyce’s ambition to make a career of the Army, though. Even though he, like many other soldiers, struggled with the idea of readjusting to life in regular society once his service had ended, Boyce knew he wasn’t a military lifer.
“I wanted to serve my country, show my kids this is the right thing to do, and then go on with my life. The Army was just another experience I wanted to have.”
And when Boyce returned home, the college money he’d intended for his son was there waiting for him. Jordan had opted to enroll in community college and put himself through school.
“He thought that would be the way to prove to his dad he was a man, by doing it all on his own,” said Boyce. “That was a really neat turn of events for him. I’m very proud of him for that.”
So Boyce put those benefits to good use and started working toward his degree. With his extensive professional experience and portfolio, he admits he used to view a degree as almost a waste of time.
“Now the world has changed,” said Boyce. “Now you need a degree as your calling card, to show you have credentials and followed through.”
Plus, it could help him realize another aspiration.
“I decided I’d love to have a degree so I could teach and pass on what I know,” said Boyce.
Boyce’s artwork has also served as an outlet for dealing with the emotional toll sometimes caused by military service.
“They diagnosed me with (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder),” said Boyce. “It’s one of those things I always used to put a negative connotation to. It’s one of those things I wouldn’t admit.
“One of the psychologists said: ‘Listen, you’re an artist. That’s really how you’re dealing with a lot of this stuff. Why don’t you try to use that as a therapy? Try to go into some of the subject matter that’s bothering you; some of the questions you’re having.’”
That method has worked out well for Boyce so far; he has begun work on a body of work he calls Skin Deep.
“Basically it was going to be a reflection on how soldiers see themselves when they come back from a combat zone and kind of try to integrate back into society,” said Boyce. “Dealing with Western culture after they’ve been trained to deal with completely different issues in life.
“I’m definitely using it as a therapy for myself. I’d also like for it to be a therapy for somebody else. Even if other people don’t really get it, it’s almost more for people who have served. I think they’ll get it and have a real understanding of what I’m trying to say.”