Many students have walked the graduation aisle thanks to the dedication of College of the Mainland professor Pete Rygaard.

On May 16, it’s Rygaard’s turn.

Granted a special exception to teach based on his 50-year work history in the petrochemical industry, Rygaard will be the oldest COM graduate at 85. The COM process technology professor of 43 years completes his associate degree this summer.

“Who would know I’d be a college grad? That wasn’t in my furthest dreams,” said Rygaard.

A first-generation American, Rygaard dropped out of high school his senior year to work at Union Carbide, helping support his mom as his father died when he was three. He received his GED in 1956.

Excelling first as an operator and then trainer, Rygaard taught in the COM Process Technology Program from its inception. 

He has nurtured generations of students—including his great-grandnephew—in the finer points of operating gears, turbines and compressors.

“I have two rules. One, have fun, and number two is (to) see rule one,” said Rygaard. “I like to interject trivia questions and riddles because it makes your mind work.”

Generally requiring professors to complete graduate hours in the subject they teach, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools allowed Rygaard’s extensive working experience to qualify him as long as he pursued a degree.

Beginning classes in 2010, Rygaard often learned alongside his current students.

“It was actually a lot of fun,” said Rygaard. “They had established study habits. It was beneficial.”

One of his students, Christy Torres, took chemistry with him.

“His energy level is up there with the rest of them,” said Torres. “We were two in the front row. You know how much fun it is to sit next to the professor?”

Rygaard teaches COM classes Intro to Process Technology, Equipment, and Health, Safety and Environment.

“He’s an outstanding teacher,” said COM Process Technology Program Coordinator Jerry Duncan. “He’s really good with students. He has some of the best drawings (of equipment) He’s like an artist.”

Rygaard has seen many changes in his decades of industry, including many companies beginning to require new hires have associate degrees.

“When I first was hired, it was a lot of grunt work, turning valves by hand and climbing ladders. Now you turn a switch on and off from a keyboard.”

Ever energetic, Rygaard while teaching completed four terms as La Marque mayor from 1987 to 2000, becoming the longest-serving La Marque mayor.

“I never lost a mayoral election,” said Rygaard. 

Rygaard also is passionate about the Lions Club leadership and service. One project he advocates are holiday parties at Independence Village, a home for mentally challenged individuals.

“We have as much fun as they do,” said Rygaard.

Married to Mary Lou for 65 years, Rygaard has three sons, who have worked in the petrochemical industry, and two daughters.

His family, including nieces and nephews, will cheer at his first commencement ceremony.

“I feel like a kid going into this graduation,” said Rygaard. “I never thought this is something I’d do. Me, who never had a high school diploma? 

“I got a lot of help along the way from students, professors and people like Bill Raley (former COM Dean of Industrial Education), who got me started.”

His advice gleaned from 43 years on both sides of the classroom?

“You’re never too old to learn. I’m a testimonial.”