Bob Whitsitt quickly realized on his first day of classes at Mitchell Hamline School of Law in 2017 that he wasn't like any of the other newbies roaming from building to building on the St. Paul campus.
"I was walking down the hall, and one student thought I was a professor and asked me where the library was," said Whitsitt, who received his law degree 3½ years later on Sunday, his 65th birthday.
Whitsitt, who once wore the mantle of the youngest general manager in the history of the National Basketball Association in the mid-1980s, is proud to be wearing a cap and gown as the oldest of all who received a law degree in a ceremony that was pushed into the virtual universe by the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Never Too Late" is how Whitsitt titled the letter he wrote to family and friends upon completion of his 27th and final course while maintaining his professional and home life in Seattle, thanks to Mitchell Hamline's long-standing blended program of virtual and on-campus learning. The instruction was forced to go exclusively online in March as the pandemic took root.
Noting that he had to clear such generational hurdles as being "the only person unable to type a Word document [and] playing academic catch-up as I was learning how to use six different online platforms," Whitsitt graduated magna cum laude.
"Law school is a lot of work, and it really got my brain to where I wanted it to be," said Whitsitt, whose long career as an executive in the NBA includes becoming president of the Seattle SuperSonics in 1986 at age 30 before moving on to the NBA's Portland Trail Blazers and then to the Seattle Seahawks in the National Football League. He turned to consulting in 2005.
"When you haven't been to school for 40 years, sitting there for 12 hours, it's tough," said Whitsitt, who earned his undergraduate degree back in 1977 from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point in the home state of his youth.
"But I really wanted the challenge," he said. "I want to get out of my comfort zone. As you age, you need to challenge yourself."
Mitchell Hamline has been producing graduates 60 and older steadily over the past several years. Whitsitt is the oldest among Sunday's 91 graduates and the third oldest among its 13 graduates 60 and older since December 2015, when the Hamline and William Mitchell law schools combined.
"For most older students, I think they are looking for legal topics that are aligned with their professional experience or what they are doing already," said Prof. Jim Hilbert, the vice dean for academic and faculty affairs, who had Whitsitt in three of his classes covering negotiating and drafting contracts.
Hilbert said Mitchell Hamline's criminal law courses draw people from law enforcement, and medical malpractice classes are attended by doctors and nurses.
"Having that kind of professional experience in the classroom makes the group discussions all the more valuable," Hilbert said, adding that Whitsitt "brought his unique talents and insights to each discussion."
Whitsitt said he is looking to focus on transactional law once he passes the bar exam in Washington state. He also wants to do pro bono work "for organizations that could use some help."
A return to a pro sports front office could also be in Whitsitt's future. Lately, he's been a consultant with the Seattle Kraken, a new NHL franchise come the 2021-22 season.
It was a combination of factors, Whitsitt said, that put Mitchell Hamline on his radar despite living much of his adult life in the Pacific Northwest. He applied to William Mitchell and Indiana University law schools back in 1980 before professional sports management opportunities blossomed.
As the law school bug nibbled at him anew in 2017, Whitsitt read about Mitchell Hamline's program meshing virtual and on-campus learning, a concept that thousands of other educational institutions at all levels of academia have had to stitch together on the fly in the wake of COVID-19.
Whitsitt said he saw it as "the perfect combo" for continuing the travel-heavy demands as a business consultant.
He added that choosing Mitchell Hamline also made it more convenient for him to visit his 93-year-old mother in nearby Hudson, Wis., his sister and other relatives during the required campus learning stints that would stretch for up to a week at a time.
And with his affinity for the NBA, he got to catch a Timberwolves home game every once in a while.
With the advantage of hindsight and the satisfaction of getting his degree, Whitsitt said he "really didn't know what to expect" on that first day of law school.
"I can tell you this," he said, "at this stage of life, you don't waste time. It's got to be worth the while."
Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482