May 6, 2013
Degrees of love: Kansas State University offered family chance to heal, fulfill wife's final wish
Art DeGroat is in a position few fathers find themselves in -- he attends Kansas State University with his two daughters, Lizzie and Taylor DeGroat.
Art DeGroat, who is the university's director of military affairs, is in the dissertation phase of his doctorate in educational leadership. Lizzie DeGroat is a sophomore in apparel and textiles, and Taylor DeGroat, is a graduate student in speech pathology who will participate in commencement ceremonies this month.
Kansas State University was a good fit for each of the DeGroats' educational paths, but Art DeGroat said their choices went deeper than that. In 2000, while he was on active duty as a soldier at nearby Fort Riley, his wife, Paula DeGroat, died from cancer. At the time, Lizzie DeGroat was just 7 and Taylor DeGroat was 11.
"Their mom was the anchor of our family," Art DeGroat said. "It was time for the Army to move us, but after we lost her, we didn't want to move and give up our schools, community and church. K-State and the Army gave us an opportunity to hold our family together."
The Army gave Art DeGroat a compassionate reassignment to run the Army ROTC program at Kansas State University. He started his new job one week after his wife died and began the difficult task of being the sole parent to his young daughters. While it brought them closer together, there was a sharp learning curve. But it wasn't all sad memories, and Art DeGroat's efforts to heal his family led to stories the family still laughs about today.
Although his daughters laugh fondly at the memory of their father feeding them deer meat for weeks and tying their hair in knots to prepare them for school in the mornings, they know he stepped up to the plate in a way many fathers never have to do.
"Mom knew he would be able to do it, but I don't think she would have expected the level at which he's doing it," said Taylor DeGroat. "I'm 24 and I still call him every week to get advice."
Art DeGroat said he had made a promise to his wife before she died.
"She was very smart, but she never had the opportunity to go to college," he said. "She was determined that her daughters would have that chance. My contract with her was to get the girls through four years of college."
When Taylor DeGroat received her bachelor's degree from Kansas State University, her father was able to carry out his promise to her mother in a way she may have never imagined. When she reached for her diploma, Art DeGroat was there to hand it to her.
"She was shaking, I was shaking," he said. "I thought it would be kind of mechanical, like a high school graduation, but I cried. I felt her mother there, like I was really fulfilling my promise. I didn't just send her to school and pay her tuition, but I'm actually handing her the diploma."
Lizzie DeGroat hopes her father can do the same for her when it's her turn to graduate.
"It's nice that our dad knows all about the place we go to school," Lizzie DeGroat said. "I think my mom would be proud of us. People can take a lot of different paths in a situation like this, but we chose to stay together."
She attends many of her father's football tailgates and often has shared lunch with her sister on campus. Although their mother never saw them attend college, they know they are fulfilling her dream.
"Our mom wrote us separate journals before she passed away that detailed her memories of us and her hopes and wishes for our futures," Lizzie DeGroat said. "She wrote that one of her biggest desires was for us to go to college. That was so important."
Kansas State University is part of the reason the family's bond is so strong. Because of the Army lifestyle, the daughters grew up far away from grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, so the university community became an extended family.
"K-State was our family at a point when we really needed it," Art DeGroat said. "I chose the military because I wanted to be a part of an institution I believed in. I never thought that after leaving the military that I would be part of another institution that I would enjoy putting in so much time and sacrifice, but we found that in K-State."
Taylor DeGroat is earning her second degree -- a master's -- from Kansas State University on May 17. When she walks across the stage, her last conversation with her mother will undoubtedly be on her mind.
"She hadn't been able to hold conversations for awhile because she was so weak," Taylor DeGroat said. "Then, she came back with amazing clarity. There was TV show on about a female lawyer with curly hair, like me. My mom said, 'Someday, you'll be a professional, like her.' It was important enough to her that it was one of the last things she said to me. Now, I'm doing it."