By Paul Tennant
---- — NORTH ANDOVER — It’s not uncommon for a father and son to go into business together.
But, John Willwerth and his son Matthew Willwerth of North Andover are following a somewhat different path. They’re attending Northern Essex Community College together — and winning scholarships while they’re at it.
John, 56, earned the J. Herbert Kimball & John Rogers Memorial Scholarship of $750 while his son earned $500 worth of help for his college expenses from the NECC Foundation Inc.
John, who goes by Jack and worked as a network manager for Verizon for many years before accepting early retirement in 2001, is looking forward to graduating with a nursing degree next May. He hopes to work in emergency care, he said.
Matthew, 22, graduated from North Andover High School in 2009. He aspires to make a living as an artist and is studying toward a degree in visual arts.
“Painting is my thing,” he said, adding that he does landscapes and portraits. After completing an associate’s degree at Northern Essex, he would like to study art at a four-year school, such as Massachusetts College of Arts and Design or the University of Vermont, he said.
“He got his artistic talent from his mother,” his father said. His mother, Denise Benincasa, works as an interior designer. She and Jack are divorced.
A traumatic event pushed Jack toward nursing, he said. Verizon, which had been reducing its management force, made him a generous early retirement offer, he said. The company gave him a year’s salary and he had an adequate 401K retirement account, he said.
So he accepted the offer because “I wanted to be home with the kids,” he said. Then he was afflicted with a life-threatening illness, necrotizing pancreatitis. He initially thought he was having a heart attack, he said, but it turned out that “my pancreas had started dying off.”
He was airlifted to Tufts Medical Center and spent four months in the hospital, he said.
“It was by seeing how good the nurses were,” he said, that inspired him to think about going into nursing for his second career. He decided that he had the compassion to work with people and “make a difference,” he said.
Going back to school in one’s 50s, however, is a daunting challenge. The elder Willwerth graduated from the University of Massachusetts Lowell, but he had not taken the science courses that are prerequisites for a nursing degree.
“I thought they were going to be too hard,” he said — but then he proved himself wrong.
The first science course he took was physiological chemistry.
“I figured that if I could pass that, I could pass them all,” he said. Jack did more than pass. He earned an A, he said. The teacher, Kim Waligora, is excellent and he gives her much of the credit with the success he achieved, he said.
“People are often more capable than they think they are,” Matthew said. Father and son have both been on the dean’s list, they said.
Does the father ever have to remind the son to do his homework, or vice versa?
“We’re motivated,” Matthew said.
“We’re pretty conscientious,” Jack added.
The money from the scholarships will come in handy, they said. Jack said the cost of books for his courses could easily top $1,000.
Matthew, who does a lot of his work with acrylics and watercolors, noted art supplies are expensive.
Both Willwerths are full-time students. Jack is looking for a position as a nursing assistant while Matthew works part-time at Pier One Imports in North Andover.
“We live day to day,” Jack said. When they head back to their classes in September, they’ll be joined by a third member of their family, Zachary Willwerth, 18, who just graduated from North Andover High School.
An honors student at NAHS, Zachary has acquired a passion for East Asian studies and wants to learn to speak Japanese, his father said. The Willwerths are among 200 students at Northern Essex Community College who received $178,000 in scholarships.
“Our students are deeply appreciative of the many generous individuals and organizations that make these scholarships possible,” said Jean Poth, vice president of institutional advancement at the college. “For many of our students, a scholarship is what allows them to stay in school.” The scholarships range from $500 to $5,000 and come from private donors, memorial donations, local businesses and foundations.