Gap Years

DATE: Thursday, June 1, 2023

"Every art piece you do, you put a little of yourself in it. If I had my life to do over again, I would have been an artist, but I needed to live the life that I've lived. I wouldn't be the artist that I am without all those life experiences." – James Bradford '73, '23

James Bradford gives a speech at a Veterans Day celebration at HCC in November 2022.

In the spring of 1973, James K. Bradford graduated from Holyoke Community College. On Saturday, June 3, 2023, he will do it again.

"It'll be 50 years almost to the day from the first time," said the Springfield resident. 

For HCC, that's a record. Other alumni have returned for second (and third) degrees or certificates over the course of their lives and careers. Bradford, though, is the only one to have done so after a full, five-decade gap. He will don his cap and gown once more on Saturday as he joins his classmates at the MassMutual Center for the college's 76th Commencement. There, accompanied by his wife and children – three of whom are also HCC alumni – Bradford will graduate with honors and his associate degree in visual art. (He earned his first HCC degree in law enforcement, now called criminal justice.) 

At 69, Bradford, a U.S. Army veteran, former police officer, former HCC adjunct professor, retired defense lawyer, and Shriners clown, is also the oldest member of the HCC Class of 2023. 

"We are incredibly proud of James," said Julie Phillips, HCC interim director of Development. "His extraordinary accomplishment is a testament to lifelong learning, perseverance, and the enduring impact of an HCC education." 

In the storied history of HCC, Bradford is a "tween." He enrolled at HCC in 1971, three years after the fire that destroyed the original campus on Sergeant Street in downtown Holyoke but before the new campus on Homestead Avenue opened in 1974. 

"We were in two temporary buildings about a quarter mile apart," he said. "We would hop in our cars and share rides back and forth to classes, but we managed to do it." 

Nevertheless, he chose HCC, he said, because it was affordable, close to home, and several of his classmates from Holyoke Catholic High were going there.   

"When I graduated high school in 1971, the Vietnam War was still going strong, and I stood a good chance of being drafted," he said. "My parents convinced me that more education might lead to better prospects in the Army."   

Following HCC, he earned a bachelor's degree in law enforcement from the University of Massachusetts. After that, he enlisted, serving two years as a military policeman in Virginia. That led to an eight-year stint as a police officer in Newport News.   

In his 30s, he returned to Massachusetts and used his GI Bill money to attend Western New England School of Law. After initially considering work as a prosecutor, he decided his sensibilities were more in line with criminal defense work and started taking on indigent clients as their court-appointed attorney. He practiced in Springfield for 30 years, retiring in 2018.  

"Some people say, you wasted your time," he said. "Believe me, when the whole of society is trying to trample down somebody that's on a lower economic level because of race or color or ethnicity, and you're able to save that person from the system, it's so empowering. I cannot imagine having done anything else with my life." 

In retirement, he developed an interest in art through his son William, who earned an associate degree in visual art from HCC in 2019. He began taking art classes as a diversion (and to keep himself out of his wife's hair). 

"I got hooked, even though I had never drawn a straight line and didn't think I could," he said. 

Not a fan of online classes, he put his education on pause during the pandemic. Once HCC reopened for in-person classes, Bradford returned to complete his degree. He finished his last class in December.

Bradford, who also writes poetry, said he considers himself an abstract artist and is particularly fond of "trash art," turning discarded or found objects into artwork. 

"It's kind of relaxing," he said. "Every art piece you do, you put a little of yourself in it. If I had my life to do over again, I would have been an artist, but I needed to live the life that I've lived. I wouldn't be the artist that I am without all those life experiences." 

If he were younger, he says, he might have continued on for a bachelor's degree or master's degree in art therapy. Still, he would like to teach art to veterans through area veterans' organizations, such as the VA, the Holyoke Soldiers' Home or the Warrior's Art Room in Easthampton, which is run by another HCC alum, Steve Jones '15.

In November, Bradford was asked to give the keynote speech at the annual campus Veterans Day celebration, where he recounted his two stints at HCC, as well as the gap years in between.       

"Since this is my last semester, I may be done with HCC for good," he said during the ceremony, "but I hope not."

STORY and PHOTOS by CHRIS YURKO: (Above) James Bradford '73, '23 gives a keynote address at HCC"s 2022 Veterans Day celebration. (Thumbnail) Bradford visits campus in spring 2023.