Following a Dream: 72-Year-Old Wayne Resident Named Oldest Valedictorian At Passaic County Community College

Following a Dream: 72-Year-Old Wayne Resident Named Oldest Valedictorian At Passaic County Community College

By Dawn M Chiossi


     It is never too late to start a new path, to break out of a comfort zone, or to follow a dream. 


     The sentiment is especially fitting at this time of the year when people are celebrating graduations. They are more than just a tradition for any senior, they are a time of excitement, of ambitions, of pride. It is the moment that every senior looks forward to all year; Graduation is a chance for students to strike out on their own, to make their own contribution to their respective futures, and to the world at large.


      Almost from the moment graduates slip into their signature caps and gowns, they feel the flurry of anticipation that a brand new journey brings.


      When that old traditional tune of Pomp and Circumstance sounds, graduates not only feel the thrill of the unknown, they get the opportunity to look back on all that they have accomplished. It is a time to embrace passions and ideas, express confidence and exclaim proudly, “I was here,” and “I’m ready for more.” 


     It’s a feeling that long-time Wayne Resident Henry (Hank) Cenicola is celebrating. He knows from experience that ambition and passion can be derailed by life. Years ago he had to put his own plans of cooking and baking and going back to school aside. 


     He recently discovered that it was never too late to follow his dream when he decided to attend Passaic County College several years ago. He also discovered that with time, that particular dream can be even better than first thought.    


     Graduating on May 23rd, with his family looking on, Cenicola received so much more than just a degree in Culinary Arts. At 72 years old, he was named Valedictorian. It was a multilayered honor for this hard-working man as he is the oldest person to be chosen as valedictorian in the college’s 50-year history.


     Out of the 1,200 members of the graduating class, he received top honors. Cenicola’s diligence and dedication earned him an impressive 3.87 grade point average and the respect of everyone who knew him.


     His college journey was a long time in the making, and something Cenicola wouldn’t change for the world. 


     “My time at Passaic County College was the most fulfilling and rewarding learning experience I’ve ever had,” he enthuses. 


     Well aware he isn’t the typical college graduate just starting out, Cenicola has a deep-seated belief that age is just a number after all.


    Although he is quiet and self-effacing, a self-proclaimed introvert,  Cenicola is a bit of a trendsetter: not only was he named valedictorian, he was also the first person to receive an Associate’s In Applied Science Degree for the college’s 3 year old Culinary Arts program.


     As such, Cenicola firmly believes in the power of the second time around.


     “It is never too late to do what you love,” he asserts.


     His reasons for going back were pretty universal for a person his age: Boredom and a desire to keep busy after retiring. “When I retired I didn’t feel like I wanted to slow down,” explains Cenicola. “I was used to keeping busy. I wasn’t ready to be put out to pasture just yet.”


     Like so many retirees out there, he was searching for something to metaphorically stick his teeth into. Cenicola then decided it was the perfect time for him to dust off his old dream; a love of cooking and baking.


     It was an interest that stemmed from working part-time in a bakery in his youth. Inspired by its simple routine and creative aspects, he credits his father for piquing his interest in both disciplines.  He claims that it is in the genes. “I’m Italian, we love to cook,” Cenicola quips, only half-jokingly.


     Unfortunately, as a young man, it was a love and ambition that had to remain dormant for him.


      Cenicola’s work experience began when he was just 16 years old. He shares that at that time he dropped out of high school. His thoughts of furthering his education were put on the back burner in favor of more practical matters and making a living.


 Cenicola worked in the textile industry in his native Paterson and ran his own textile company with partners for 17 years. As the years went on, he then transitioned his experience into managing the textile division of a medical device company. 


     He continued there for an impressive 25 years. 


     According to Cenicola, it was good and necessary work, but not where his passions resided.


     Through it all, he had the love and support of his close-knit family. “I have a wife and kids, and three amazing grandchildren,” he prides.


    When retirement invariably came around, it was Cenicola’s sister, Rita, who gave him the idea of revisiting his dream. With his love of cooking and baking still marinating in his brain, he gave it serious consideration.  


     “When she told me that Passaic County Community College started this brand new program called Culinary Arts, she told me to apply and go for it,” Cenicola shares.


     Although Cenicola calls himself ‘a definite introvert,’ and was understandably nervous about trying something new, he followed her advice and applied it to the college and the program. “It’s something I really wanted to do,” he remarks. “My family thought my going back to school was a hoot. They supported me wholeheartedly.”


     Like any Italian family, cooking is a major theme in the Cenicola household, and with his Culinary Arts degree, it is only bound to get better.  Cenicola shares that on their respective birthdays, he and his wife cook for one another. Her favorite dish that he makes for her is an Italian shrimp scampi over linguini, while his favorite meal is always his wife’s eggplant parmesan. “It’s delicious,” he enthuses.


     Once he began his college excursion, Cenicola’s apprehensions dropped away.  “The teachers were amazing, and the other students weren’t stopped by the age difference between us at all,” he says.  “They made me feel so welcome. They never made me feel like an outsider.”


     Despite his own experience with cooking, Cenicola didn’t consider it an advantage when he was in his classes. “I was on the same level as all the other students. We were all learning together.”


     When talking to Cenicola, his enjoyment of cooking shines through. He describes that the course included hands-on experiences that focus on learning by doing and externships where students can transition that experience into practical work at local restaurants and cafes, as well as much more. 


     During the course, he mentions that the students had to cook and present dishes for others to judge and enjoy. Although he was apprehensive about that, he says, “They generally liked everything. I never really heard anything negative.”


     When asked what he found most challenging about his college curriculum, Cenicola mentions public speaking. Being shy, it wasn’t a surprise, but he soon realized that his tools and skills in public speaking would come in handy when he learned he was chosen as class valedictorian.   


     “I was shocked,” he says, recalling when officials called him into the office to tell him the news. “I thought, how can this be? I dropped out of high school!” Then, his shock slid quickly into nervousness as his thoughts jumped to, “Does this mean I have to give a speech?”


     But Cenicola didn’t have to worry, his speech was inclusive and inspiring to both his fellow grads and to the audience. He spoke from the heart. Asserting that “the best speech is a short one,” he spoke effusively about his teachers, his classmates, his family, the culinary program itself, and how grateful he was for them all. He ended it with appealing to his fellow graduates to make a difference in the world for their futures.


     Additionally, his public speaking course and experience in giving speeches gave Cenicola a priceless treasure. “It helped me stand up and give a toast at my daughter’s wedding,” he says proudly.


  So what’s next for this impressive man and his brand new degree? Cenicola has some ideas.  “I think I’d like to volunteer serving lunch with Oasis from Paterson or an organization that feeds those who need it,” he remarks. 


 For a man who originally would have preferred to sit quietly in the back of the room, apart from everyone else, now has this to say: “I loved the camaraderie of the school, classes, and my classmates. It was wonderful how they just included me. It was all about a mutual respect. I have a whole new appreciation for younger people today.”


     When asked if he has any advice for those who are just starting out, Cenicola sums it up perfectly, letting his own experience guide him. “We write our own stories, bettering our lives,” he tells.  “You are never too old to learn. If you apply yourself, you can do whatever you want. It’s amazing the work that it takes to get there. It is never too late to start.”

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