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Columbia's Most Senior Graduate Receives Doctorate
Many graduate students know what it feels like to be ABD—all-but dissertation. Few know the feeling as well as Max Horlick.
The Class of 2006
Max Horlick
Watch 21-second video of ceremony

Horlick, 89, received his doctorate in French literature Wednesday, more than a half century after defending his dissertation.

Horlick’s academic career was interrupted several times, first when he was drafted into the Army during World War II. Later, after his wife became ill and with children to support, he abandoned his quest for a doctorate. Last year, hoping to get him an honorary Ph.D., his children appealed to the University to accept the dissertation, “The Literary Judgment of Michel de Montaigne.”

Instead, University officials asked to see the original work to assess whether to grant the actual degree. Horlick, who hadn’t known about his children’s plan, was “astounded,” he said. “I wished them luck, but actually I was not sanguine about it.”

In March, Pierre Force, chair of the Department of French, emailed the good news to Horlick’s children and the dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. “It’s a fine piece of work on an interesting topic,” wrote Force, who was on the committee that read Horlick’s 180-page paper. “Our recommendation to Dean Pinkham is that Max Horlick be retroactively granted a 1954 Ph.D.”

When Columbia grants 11,706 degrees at this year’s commencement, Horlick, class of 1954, will certainly be the oldest. The registrar’s office wasn’t certain if he is Columbia’s oldest graduate ever..

The Class of 2006
Max Horlick in his U.S. Army uniform in the early 1940's.

Growing up in a tiny New Jersey farming community of immigrants, Horlick quickly discovered an ear for languages—he eventually learned 10 of them. After getting a degree in French from Rutgers, he married and started graduate work at Columbia, only to be drafted. His language skills got him into military intelligence, and he served in the Battle of the Bulge, questioning captured German officers.

After the war, Horlick taught at St. Lawrence University, spending summers working on his doctorate. He wrote his dissertation and defended it; two professors on the panel accepted it, a third wanted revisions. “I remember him vividly,” Horlick said. “He didn’t like the style.” Jeff Horlick, 62, remembers his father banging away on a black portable Royal typewriter, wrestling with different drafts. “As a nine-year-old, I was sensing that things were going in a frustrating way,” he said.

Then Horlick’s wife contracted tuberculosis and was sent to a sanitarium for two years. (She made a full recovery and still works as a fine arts photographer.) With all his responsibilities, Horlick said, “I just couldn’t do it.”

Horlick went on to work for the government—his children say it was the CIA—eventually ending up at the Social Security Administration. Even after retirement, he continued working in the pension industry. The dissertation stayed in a lockbox until the University asked to see it. “I didn’t even know we still had it,” Horlick said.

Horlick had to fill out paperwork to get the Ph.D., which included the question: “What are your job plans for next year?” Even though he is in his ninth decade, Horlick has a long list.

He still consults for his former employer, has finished a book about the history of the pension system and is writing a novel about football. He plays golf, belongs to a monthly book group, teaches Spanish and is taking a course in mysticism, myth and the work of Joseph Campbell.

Call back soon if there were any other questions, he said in a recent phone call from his home in Silver Spring, MD; he was about to leave for a tai chi class.

For more information on Commencement and individual school ceremonies, visit the official 2007 Commencement Web site. For the latest news, visit Commencement News.

– Special from The Record

Published: May 16, 2007
Last modified: May 16, 2007