Meet Stewart Patch, 71-year-old undergrad and eclipse ambassador

Image of Stewart Patch standing infant of the Burke Science Building posing for a photo

Five decades after finishing university, Stewart Patch joined McMaster to pursue his second bachelor's degree, this time in Physics.

Stewart Patch owes a debt of gratitude to the registrar at his old high school.

Patch needed a copy of his high school transcripts to get into McMaster, but he couldn’t exactly drop by in person: Patch lived in Dundas, and the high school he graduated from five decades earlier was in Montreal.

It was mid-March 2020. COVID was locking down the world.

Patch called the school, not expecting anyone to answer. But the registrar picked up the phone — she was packing up the office, turning out the lights, unsure of when she’d be back in there.

But she promised Patch she’d send over his transcripts before heading out the door. And she kept her word.

So in September 2020, soon after he turned 68, Patch began working on his Bachelor of Science degree at McMaster. This would be his second undergrad degree. Fifty years earlier, in September 1970, Patch was a freshman at Queen’s school of engineering.

“My wife Ann thought I was crazy,” says Patch about his plans to go back to school. He’d taken an early retirement package from Bell Canada in 2004 and moved to Dundas from Ottawa. While the couple had no problem filling their days, Patch had long toyed with the idea of returning to school.

Being only a bus ride or a walk away from Mac, plus the university’s tuition-free offer for anyone 65 years of age or older, sealed the deal.

Patch could’ve audited classes but wanted the challenge of having his work evaluated.

His original plan was to study abstract math. But he was told he’d already covered most of the required math courses while at Queen’s. So he opted instead for a major in physics with a minor in mathematics.

Patch found himself in classes where the students were young enough to be his grandkids. “Some of them didn’t know what to make of me, but others were very friendly.”

Did being back on campus make Patch feel young again? “No, I’m old. My brain’s slower and I have a whole different and longer set of priorities than what I had back in my early 20s.”

Patch would fit his course work and cramming for exams around never-ending home renovations.

Image of Stewart Patch standing in Thode Library smiling for a pictureBetween classes, he staked out a carrel in the library named after the McMaster president who once hired Patch’s father-in-law. “It’s a small world.”

Harry Thode hired Ronald Gillespie from University College in London to join McMaster’s department of chemistry in 1958. During his 63 years at McMaster, Gillespie was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1965 and a Fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1997, then made a member of the Order of Canada in 2007. He passed away at age 96 in February 2021.

Patch is now wrapping up his undergrad degree with a research thesis project on planet formation.

He’s also volunteering as a student eclipse ambassador, in response to a call that went out last spring. So far, he’s scheduled to talk at a local library and a Niagara winery that’s hosting a sold-out viewing party during the eclipse on April 8.

He plans on being at Spring Convocation, 50 years after walking across the stage at Queen’s University.

So is graduate school in his plans? “This is it. Two degrees is enough.”

And there are always more home renos to work on.

Learn more about how McMaster and the Department of Physics and Astronomy are marking the total solar eclipse here.

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