Darlene Mullins always told her children to finish what they started. On May 6, the 72-year-old grandmother of four will did just that when she received her degree from Tennessee State University after 55 years.
Mullins was among more than 800 graduates from various disciplines at the undergraduate spring commencement in the William Jasper Hale Stadium on TSU’s main campus.
For Mullins, the journey to earn a college degree began on TSU’s campus in 1962. But just as it started, it was cut short.
“Love got in the way,” said Mullins, who celebrates 54 years of marriage in August.
She met fellow student John Mullins, a senior from East St. Louis, Illinois, who she described as dashing, handsome and “everything to behold.”
Darlene, a former Miss New Jersey and Miss Glamour runner up, had an immediate crush.
“I thought he was the finest thing walking on the campus,” Darlene told Alumni Life, a campus magazine, in 2014.
She said a courtship developed and the two were married a short time later. John stayed on and completed his college work, graduating in 1964. Darlene took on the role of caring for their home and raising a family.
But in putting her education aside, Darlene also gave up on a dream of becoming an Olympic track star as a member of the famed Tigerbelles.
“I came to TSU because I ran track. I wanted to go to the 1964 Olympics,” Darlene said. “Wilma Rudolph was my idol and I was on my way. I get to TSU and meet the great coach (Ed) Temple, but we bumped heads, because I had to make a choice between his track team or Mr. John Mullins.”
More than a half-century and two children and several grandchildren later, John and Darlene have remained very supportive of each other, while living in six states over the course of their marriage.
As the children grew older and family care got less, Darlene embarked on a long and successful career in retail and cosmetology.
All the while, John worked for a number of corporate and government agencies before starting his own business, Lions Group, Inc., a successful marketing and advertising agency in Dallas, Texas. He said his TSU education with a degree in business gave him a good foundation to be an entrepreneur.
“I always knew I wanted to own my own business,” John said.
But as the two moved around with success at every turn, Darlene never forgot her academic aspiration.
“Something kept nagging at me,” she said. “I always told my children to make sure they finish what they started and I kind of felt it was time to live up to my own advice.”
She decided it was time to go back to school to get her degree. “John did not hesitate for one bit; he said ‘let’s go,’” Darlene said.
“I love this woman so much and always told her whenever you are ready we will go because this is something I knew she always wanted and I will do nothing to hold her back,” John said.
In July 2013, the couple moved back to Nashville to allow Darlene to return to TSU and pursue a degree in interdisciplinary studies. At times, she took as many as 20 credit hours a semester, and maintained top grades.
“My goal was to come back and finish at Tennessee State. I didn’t know at the time how long it was going to take, I just knew I had to do it,” she said.
With the 25 credits she had accumulated before dropping out in 1963, Darlene completed her college work in four years. A member of three honor societies, she graduated summa cum laude.
“My graduation from college, for me, confirms that I completed what I started more than 50 years ago,” Darlene said. “I am happy.”