By Mike LaBella
---- — HAVERHILL — Bryan Waters made one last promise to his father that he would obtain something more than the high school diploma he’d earned decades earlier. Waters, 57, made good on his promise when he graduated from Northern Essex Community College after five years of attending classes.
Waters never told his family about his promise, keeping it a secret out of concern that for some unforeseen reason he might not be able to fulfill it.
“As his breathing slowed there was one thing I wanted to say to my father before he passed,” Waters said. “I held his hand and promised him that I would return to school and get a college degree. It didn’t matter if he heard me, but I felt that I had to try to say it. He passed away moments later and I hope he heard me.”
Waters, of Haverhill, grew up in the Tower Hill area of Lawrence. He was among the nearly 1,500 graduates receiving certificates and degrees when Northern Essex Community College held its 51st commencement exercises on Saturday, May 18.
“I think my dad would have been very happy to know that I went to college as he did,” Waters said about his father, Fred Waters Sr., an electrical engineer and amateur photorgrapher. “I am the youngest of four brothers and the only one that went to college.”
The journey that led to Water’s receiving an Associates in Arts, General Studies degree from Northern Essex began on March 10, 2005.
“I was in my apartment when I got the one call I was regretting, but knew was coming,” Waters said. “It was from my oldest brother (Fred Waters Jr.) informing me that our father’s health had taken a turn for the worst. He picked me up and we went to our father’s home in Atkinson, where he lived with our stepmother.”
Waters said his stepmother told him that his father wanted to be at his home when his time came, surrounded by family, and not in a hospital or nursing home.
“My brother Fred was in the kitchen, while my brother Gary was on his way to the airport to pick up our brother Billy,” Waters said. “I sat next to my father, who was in a hospital bed in the living room, and I was carrying on a one-way conversation with him.”
Waters said his father was 85.
“I just wanted him to know that I wanted to try to do something better with my life,” Waters said.
From that moment on, Waters never mentioned the promise he’d made to his father.
Since graduating from Lawrence High School in 1975, Waters worked at various jobs, including factory jobs, heavy labor and as a sheet metal punch press operator. But in 2002 he was unable to continue in that line of work due to his health, so he tried other jobs, including as a part-time security guard, a job he currently has.
After making a promise to his father, Waters saved up and in September of 2007 he enrolled in classes at Northern Essex.
“First I had to take basic English, writing and reading classes to prepare for college-level classes,” he said.
While working part-time as a security guard, he took two or three classes per semester and eventually entered the general studies program.
“The teachers were great,” Waters said. “Although most of my fellow students were younger than me, they were always nice to me.”
“At times when I was struggling with my studies I said to myself I had to continue and I had to finish and keep on going,” he said. “Eight years after my father’s passing, I graduated and fulfilled that one last promise.”
Waters said he never told his brothers about what he’d told his father.
“I didn’t want to tell them in case something happened and I was unable to go to school,” Waters said. “They knew I was going to school but they didn’t know the promise that was behind it.”
Waters said he gave his mother, Ruth Waters, 90, a photo of him in a cap and gown as a Mother’s Day present this year.
“I told her I was graduating and she smiled because it was a picture of me,” he said.
He finally told his brothers Fred and Gary during a luncheon celebration following his graduation.
“My brothers were proud of me,” Waters said. “I know my father would have been proud.”