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The Long Walk Home

Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Robert Kroener MBA ’71, got called back to active duty during Vietnam and couldn’t participate in his own graduation ceremony. Now he’ll get his chance.

April 29, 2021
Bob Kroener_sash
Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Bob Kroener will finally get to "walk" at the Marshall Commencement Ceremony May 17 at the Los Angeles Coliseum.

Marshall students who graduated in 2020 waited a year for the day they could walk across the stage and accept their diplomas.

Robert “Bob” Kroener MBA ’71 waited 50 years.

“We’d set it up for me to come out in 2020, but, well, you know what happened. I just had to wait another year,” he said.

The retired Air Force Lt. Colonel and civil engineer will be driving out to Los Angeles from his home in Arizona to participate in the outdoor graduate commencement ceremony, held May 17 at the Los Angeles Coliseum.

Kroener completed the coursework for his MBA back in 1971. But he finished in the summer session and was returned back to active duty before he could don the cap and gown and “walk” across the stage to receive his diploma.

Coming to USC

Kroener had joined the Air Force in 1965 out of the University of Detroit, where he majored in civil engineering and was active in ROTC. He was stationed in a remote base in Canada when he received word that he’d been chosen for one of 26 slots for officers such as himself to apply for graduate school.

“There were a lot of good universities to choose from,” Kroener recalls. “But I was sitting up in Canada in 110 inches of snow, so when I came to the listing for the University of Southern California, I stopped looking.”

He remembered the fine SoCal weather during his time stationed at Oxnard Air Force Base in Ventura County. He applied and was accepted.

An associate dean at the time, William C. Himstreet, remarked at the letter of recommendation that was submitted on Kroener’s behalf by a former commander; “With your academic record and that kind of recommendation, there’s no question you’d be admitted,” he told him.

Kroener came to the business school as a young husband and father of two small boys with a baby girl on the way. His professors noted his mature demeanor, his leadership abilities, and his way around complex numbers.

One professor, teaching an advanced statistics class, told him it was clear from the outset that he didn’t need this one class, and, in fact, could probably teach it. Could he possibly help some of the other students out with their presentations?

That same professor offered to sponsor him to pursue his DBA (Doctorate of Business Administration).

“I was young and more concerned with my Air Force career,” Kroener said. “I would love to be a professor, but I didn’t want to be a professional student.”

Looking back, however, he says he could have earned a second master’s degree in industrial management with another 20 hours of classes. “Maybe I should have given that more thought.”

But he felt he was on a mission and eager to return to active duty. When he got the order, just as he’d finished his coursework on an accelerated, five-semester track, he didn’t think twice.

Bob Kroener
Air Force Lt. Col. Bob Kroener

Fast forward 50 years. Kroener retired from the Air Force as a Lt. Colonel in 1993 and went on to work another 15 years as a plant engineer in the pharmaceutical industry. Now retired and living with his wife Donna in Surprise, Ariz., he began to think about finally closing the loop, and taking care of unfinished business.

“USC was a good time for me and my family,” he said. “I wanted to make good on acknowledging what it meant for me and my career.”

He recalled a boss once calling him aside and asking him where he learned how to present project data as he did. “They taught us that at USC,” he told him. The boss nodded. From that point on, everyone in the company would use this project application corporate-wide.

There were many such moments over the course of his career, both in the Air Force and in the private sector.

Preparing to Walk

Kroener ordered his sash, as students do today, online, from a USC Bookstore vendor. But his sash had to be custom-made.

There’s the date: 1971 instead of 2021. And he wanted to include the Air Force crest as well as the name of  his undergraduate institution and his graduation date. The woman sewing the custom sashes actually called him to make sure she had it right.

“She got it right,” he said. “And she even asked me to leave her a Yelp review.”

Lt. Col. Kroener will be at the Coliseum May 17 to walk across the stage, hear his name called and be witnessed by his family.

“USC really impacted my life in a meaningful way,” he said. “I’m proud I can remain a part of the Trojan Family.”