Freddie Sherrill could have easily given up.
After being unable to read for more than half his life, and battling addiction and homelessness for several years, he beat all the odds when he walked across the stage to graduate from college at 65.
The road to Sherrill’s college degree hasn’t been an easy one. He dropped out of school at eight, went to jail at 16, and became homeless at 27. Throughout most of his adult life he battled drug and alcohol addiction and even tried to kill himself in 1988, but the gun he was going to use didn’t go off.
“I couldn’t stop crying,” he told the Charlotte Observer. “I said the only prayer I knew: ‘God, please help me.’ I was just tired of living. I wanted to die and couldn’t even do that.”
Sherrill tried again and again to clean up his act, going into a detoxification program and later taking a job at the First Presbyterian in Morganton, North Carolina.
He slowly put his life back together, getting married and starting a family, learning how to read with the help of volunteers at the Burke County Literacy Council, and then enrolling in Western Piedmont Community College to earn his G.E.D. After six tries, he finally passed the test. No matter how long it took, Sherrill kept pursuing his education, taking 13 years to complete his associate’s degree in human services with a concentration in substance abuse counseling.
Along the way, Sherrill gave back to others, leading Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and working with at-risk youth. Minister Steve Eason, who took a chance on Sherrill at First Presbyterian, said his his ability to see the good in others is one of his best qualities.
“It’s the most incredible life story in my life, and I’ve been pastoring 39 years,” Eason said. “He’s got so much street sense, and he’s so unconditional in his love and acceptance for people because he’s been on the dark side. He doesn’t judge people; he sees the good in folks. ‘Don’t throw him away,’ I’ve heard him tell me that.“
In 2009 when Sherrill’s son was getting ready to apply for college, many encouraged the man to also go back to school himself. Though it took him several years, a few failed classes, and a semester off, he made it.
Sherrill received his bachelor’s degree in human service studies. Though he could have easily given up, his inability to throw in the towel kept him going.
“I just wouldn’t quit,” he said of his harrowing journey. “That’s the story of my life: Don’t quit.”