Deborah Frock finishes what she starts.
The 52-year-old Phoenix woman will graduate today from Villa Julie College, 34 years after she first arrived on the campus in northwest Baltimore County. Over the span of five decades, she has dropped in and out and in of Villa Julie, skipping only the 1970s. She earned a two-year degree in 1969, returned as a part-time student in 1985, then withdrew when she decided to remarry. Ten years later, she came back again, determined to earn a bachelor's degree in accounting.
Today, she will do that, picking up her diploma at the 4 p.m. commencement, just one ceremony of many in this crowded week. Frock was honored as the school's outstanding part-time student (Monday) and sang in the college choir for a baccalaureate program (Tuesday). Today, she will rush from her graduation to attend a confirmation for several young people at her church in Westminster. Meanwhile, she has worked her usual 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. schedule at Pimlico Key Service Inc.
Yes, Frock likes to finish what she starts. And she starts a lot of things.
"A degree is -- I hate to use the words 'badge of honor,' but that's what it is," she says in a rare idle moment. "What was the real purpose? I didn't need a degree in accounting ... but I do tend to persevere."
At Dulaney High School in the 1960s, she had excelled at math and yearned to study accounting at a four-year institution. But everyone -- friends, family, her high school sweetheart -- dissuaded her. She was going to be a wife and mother. She didn't need a degree.
Besides, accounting was hard. Family legend had it that one of Frock's uncles could never pass the Certified Public Accountant exam, despite taking numerous accounting courses.
So Frock decided to become a medical secretary. Determined to have something to show for her time, she chose Villa Julie's program over secretarial school. A two-year, all-female institution at the time, Villa Julie offered an associate of arts degree.
School completed, she went to work, putting her husband through school. She had a daughter, then a son. Twenty years ago, she went to work at the family locksmithing business, Pimlico Key Service. And then she found herself divorced, a single mother. She returned to Villa Julie, which by then offered four-year degrees, and began taking classes toward a computer systems major.
Her education was interrupted, but she was glad for this interruption. On a religious retreat -- Frock has long been active in the Episcopal Church -- she met Carl Frock, an engineer who shared her love of math and music. When they decided to marry in 1986, she withdrew from school to devote time to her new, blended family.
By 1997, 30 years had passed since Frock had enrolled at Villa Julie the first time. With a job supervising the accounting division at her family business, she had no need for a degree. But, after meeting a middle-aged woman who had earned a law degree, Frock decided to go back to school. She enrolled in the evening school, taking accounting classes in the same building where she had earned her associate of arts degree all those years ago. In a sense, she had come full circle.
"It was important to Debbie for a sense of accomplishment," her husband, Carl, says of her decision. "It was something unfinished. ... It was an act of love for me to give up time with her." Between class and her activities, she was busy at least four weeknights a week.
School was different the third time around. For one thing, Frock had a much higher grade point average than she did as an easily distracted 18-year-old. She seldom missed class because she was paying her tuition.
Frock and four other accounting students -- Michelle Booker, Mike Kohler, Bev Richard and Mary Meyers -- formed an eclectic, close-knit study group, with Frock happily playing the maternal role. When the semester ended, she rewarded her friends with an elaborate Italian meal, served by candlelight in the Villa Julie cafeteria.
"She became a support system for me," says Meyers, 36, who has at least 2 1/2 years of night classes to complete before she'll earn her degree. The two spoke about how little they appreciated school when they were college-age.
But, even on her third try, Frock considered giving up. Intermediate Accounting almost defeated her. A demanding course, it was particularly tough for someone carrying nine credits, working full-time and teaching music on the side. "The tests were so hard, I thought, if I don't pass, I'm going to give up. I was so stressed out, I thought, why am I doing this?" she said.
She managed a C, the only C she would receive in an accounting course. Frock is graduating with a 3.4 grade point average, and it would be significantly higher if it didn't include the courses she took during her first two years. Lynn Duncan, an assistant professor and Frock's adviser, describes her as among "the top 1 percent of all the students I have taught in my 20 years here."
Why does Frock love accounting so much? "I love the mystery of it," she says. "It's like putting a puzzle together -- what helps, what doesn't help."
With school behind her at last, Frock will do what many college graduates do -- head to Europe. Only she'll be accompanied by her husband and won't be living out of a knapsack during her 16-day trip.
As for her long-range plans -- she's thinking of a master's degree.