When Carlos Manuel Sera’s name was announced during graduation at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, he rose shakily to his feet while watching the ceremony as it was streamed on the internet. His shoulders heaved and he began to weep — for the past, for the present, for the unexpected events that had tied together the loose ends of his life like a small miracle.
At age 81, 63 years after enrolling, he was officially a graduate. He had hoped to attend the ceremony in person, but a recent stroke left him unable to travel.
“Carlos, we know you’re watching from Houston,” said Paul Almeida, the dean at McDonough, from the stage. “We are tremendously proud of you and your lifetime of accomplishments. And, while you have always been a Hoya, today we make it official.”
Despite his fragile health, Sera said it was important to him to stand when his name was called.
“This was the way to do it,” he said. “So I stood up, and I said thank you to the Big Boss for everything. You know you’ve got to be grateful for little things, because they add up to big things as time goes on.”
In the 1940s and ’50s, when Sera was growing up in Washington, D.C., son of a high-ranking diplomat in the Cuban embassy, the world seemed to roll out before him like a carpet. Already as a teen he was attending cocktail parties as his father’s representative and moving comfortably among Washington society’s diplomatic elite. But his biggest dream was to attend Georgetown University.
That came true in 1955 when he was accepted as an undergraduate. Sera loved being at Georgetown. He played on the basketball team and joined the Hispano-Americano Club. “I was always enthralled by the atmosphere,” he said.
That life crashed to a halt on Jan. 1, 1959, when revolutionaries led by Fidel Castro ousted the Cuban government. After 45 years of service, Sera’s father was out of a job. His pension was wiped out, and his assets in Cuba were frozen.
Sera was only four credits short of getting his degree. But he decided that helping his family financially was more important, and he took a job with Sears, Roebuck and Co.
His life was not without success. He went on to become an international businessman, working in Latin America, Africa and the Middle East and finally settling in Houston with his wife and four children. But wherever he went, from the streets of Bogota to meetings of the Houston Rotary Club, he ran into Georgetown graduates. And while he didn’t mention it to anyone, deep down it bothered him that he wasn’t one of them.
The truth finally surfaced when he took a granddaughter, Vanessa Weitzman, to visit Georgetown on a college tour. She had a slew of questions. What had his major been? Why had she never seen photos of his graduation?
Sera confessed that he hadn’t stayed long enough to graduate.
“He was kind of sad, because that was something he took a lot of pride in, going to Georgetown. So he was kind of gloomy and melancholy,” Weitzman said.
Sera’s daughter (and Vanessa’s mother), Mayte Sera Weitzman, sent a letter to the university, explaining the situation and asking what her father might do to complete his degree.
“It landed on someone’s desk who cared,” she said. “It’s kind of a dream because someone paid attention. It could have been easy enough to say, “Eh, it was too long ago.’ ”
When the university found that he had only one class remaining, it arranged for him to take it remotely. The school even waived the fee.
Sera took the class, Federal Income Taxation, with Thomas Cooke, a professor at the university’s business school, and wrote a paper on the new tax code. His enthusiasm was striking, Cooke said.
“He has this love for this institution and you can just feel it through the telephone,” he said.
Sera finished the class — with an A — and his college education was complete. A bottle of rum that he had bought on a visit to Cuba before the revolution and later given to his son had never been opened. When the graduation ceremony ended, the family pulled out the bottle with its yellowed, peeling label, uncorked it and poured it into small crystal glasses.
Sera raised it to his lips and declared it delicious.