“I have underwear older than all of the students in the class,” Jack Chevrier laughed. He’s not kidding, though.
Chevrier celebrates his 90th birthday today and will be spending the day how he does every Tuesday: by going to French class.
Before coming to Ole Miss, Chevrier spent the first 80 years of his life on the go. He can tell tales of his military days that began when he was 17 as if they were yesterday. When Chevrier tells stories of his younger days, he looks off into the distance as if looking at a timeline and points at certain years. His face brightens whenever he recalls a favorite memory.
Chevrier grew up in East Port, Maine, just past the Canadian border. He graduated from high school when he was 17 and immediately enlisted in the U.S. Army, lying about his age. It took them almost a year before the government realized he was too young for service and discharged him. By this time, he was 18 and of legal age to serve.
“I ran like hell to the nearest Navy recruiting station and joined the Navy,” he said.
His first job at boot camp was washing pots and pans in a greasy sink. One day, the head cook sent him to deliver coffee and cake to the administrative office. Chevrier would never return to the kitchen.
“I walked in and there were five guys, sitting and typing with one finger, and I said to the chief petty officer, ‘Do you need somebody that can type?’”
“With both hands?,” he asked.
“Yes,” Chevrier answered.
“Without looking?,” the chief continued.
“Yes,” Chevrier said again. “The chief picked up the phone, called the cook and said, ‘He ain’t coming back. He’s mine.’”
This was the moment Chevrier remembers as everything falling into place that would help him land each job and network connection since then.
“Everything I’ve got started with the fact that my mother made me take that commercial course in high school with the girls, where you learn typing and shorthand because girls could only be secretaries back in those days,” he said. “But I kept running into situations where they needed a male that could type and take shorthand. I’ve also just been fantastically lucky.”
Chevrier served the U.S. military in the Army, the Navy and the Air Force during World War II, Korea and Vietnam. He saw combat in Korea, where he flew 54 combat missions.
In 1960, while he was working in Washington, D.C. during the day and taking law school classes at night, Chevrier served as a navigator for a crew of Air Force men heading to North Africa, where France was about to explode an atomic bomb.
“When it went off, we had an airplane that was like a flying vacuum cleaner. We had equipment that we’d go ahead and fill containers with the residue,” he said. “What it amounted to was I had six hours of time actually being inside the cloud from the atomic bomb, to which I can contribute all of my health problems.”
Chevrier has traveled the world to other places like Germany and Switzerland and even served in different capacities in the Pentagon back in the states. Eventually, he would end up back in Maine before moving to Biloxi to live with one of his daughters in the late ’80s when she was on an Air Force base.
“Then she got transferred form there to Illinois, and I told her I loved her but not that much,” he said. From Biloxi, Chevrier moved a few towns over to Ocean Springs. He had just moved into a house about two blocks from the water when Hurricane Katrina swept through. His house only suffered minor damage to a television wire, but all of his belongings in a storage unit a mile inland were ruined.
It was time to move again. He went back to Maine and began taking French classes at the University of Maine when winter came.
“I was talking to my professor about the terrible weather, and she says, ‘Well you were in Mississippi, and the University of Mississippi has a great French program.’ That gal in Maine was telling me to come down here,” Chevrier said.
After a doing a little research on Oxford, he noticed the town wasn’t far from Memphis.
“The Gulf can’t get me there,” he said. That was that; he drove down, found a real estate agent, bought a house and moved all of his stuff down from Maine. That was 2009.
A little less than a decade later and Chevrier has completely emerged himself in French classes at Ole Miss since his early 80’s. He’s taken numerous classes and even earned a spot in the French Honor Society.
“My grandfather was a Frenchman,” Chevrier said through a French accent. He said his grandmother also preferred his grandfather to speak English, though, so French slowly disappeared from the family’s tongue.
“It’s also, ‘What’s your name?’ I’d say Chevrier, and they’d say, ‘Oh, so you speak French?’ I had a quirk,” he said.
Chevrier is taking advantage of the UM Lifelong Learners Program, where anyone older than the age of 65 can take one academic course a semester for free. This semester, he is in one of professor Anne Quinney’s class.
Quinney has gotten to know Chevrier throughout his time at Ole Miss. She’s seen him dress up as Charles de Gaulle for her French culture and civilization class, delivering a monologue in rhyme recounting the life of the French president.
She said having him in the class is beneficial to the other students.
“They see a formal education can be a lifelong endeavor,” Quinney said. “He brings a perspective of an elder to class, often telling stories of his long life and many careers, personal situations and living abroad and in different wars.”
She said whomever Chevrier meets, he tells a different version of his life, so she is just now seeing how all of the pieces and stories fit together.
“I admire his dedication to studying French and am impressed with his desire to learn as much as he can about French literature,” she said. “He knows he probably won’t get this degree, taking one class a semester, but he is here for the sheer love of it.”
Senior integrated marketing communications and French major Corbin Smith is in her second class with Chevrier this semester.
She said he talks once or twice every class but always has three or four books out in front of him to scour through as the lecture goes on.
“Then he’ll mention one thing from his books or something he knew about whatever we’re discussing prior,” she said. “What he says from the books is always insightful and interesting. He always has a bunch of random facts in his head.”
She said it adds another dynamic to the class to have the perspective of someone older, especially when discussing poetry written in the time Chevrier was growing up. Chevrier’s peers know him for having an interest in World War II-era French history and a love of poetry, especially anything by French poet Victor Hugo.
Chevrier said the French program at Ole Miss is one of the best in which he’s ever been enrolled.
“I think the program is super, really,” Chevrier said. “Now, I’ve gone to the University of Maine, to Hampden-Sydney, to Duke, to Harvard, to the University of Maryland, and this group of teachers here is the best group of teachers in the 70 years I’ve been going to school.”
– Lana Ferguson