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Just how big was Roy Davidson’s smile when he crossed the Eastern Kentucky University commencement stage to receive his diploma on May 11, 2018?

You might say it was 54 years wide.

That’s how much time had elapsed since Davidson, now 85, had last set foot on the Richmond campus. In fact, if a personal tragedy hadn’t curtailed his pursuit of a degree just a few credit hours short in 1964, his diploma would have carried the seal of Eastern Kentucky State College (EKSC).

Aside from wearing his EKSC class ring all these years, Davidson hadn’t given his three-plus years at Eastern or finishing his degree much thought. After all, he had gone on to a highly successful career as a property manager, mortgage banker and as founder and president of Davidson Funding Group LLC in Florida, which arranges multimillion-dollar commercial loans for businesses all across the U.S. as well as Central America.

Then, shortly after his LinkedIn page was discovered, a call came early last year from Sharron Townsend, senior director of development for the EKU College of Business and Technology. A lunch meeting between the two in Sarasota, Florida, was quickly arranged. And what a fortuitous luncheon it was! Their nearly-five-hour conversation on Jan. 23, 2017, rekindled fond memories and even triggered Davidson’s interest in finishing his degree. Long story short: by current standards, Davidson had already earned enough credits to receive a degree.

Through all life’s up and downs, which included triple-bypass heart surgery 20 years ago, the sudden death of his wife due to an aneurysm a decade ago and, more recently, a cancer diagnosis, there was one constant for Davidson: love for the game of tennis.

A high school state champion in the sport where he grew up “poor” in Middletown, Ohio, Davidson left nearby Miami University of Ohio after a year to join the U.S. Navy, where he was a perennial Navy tennis champion. It didn’t hurt that the admiral of the 6th fleet at the time was also an avid player, and they ended up as doubles partners. After two years of military service, where he first began to truly appreciate the importance of a college degree, Davidson enrolled in 1961 at Eastern and served as a player-coach for the men’s team. While on the Richmond campus, he taught then-President Robert Martin’s wife, Anne, how to play the sport.

But first he had to convince a skeptical director of admissions that he could make the grade academically. “I had to tell him he had no idea what he was getting,” Davidson recalled. “I sold myself, and I promised that I would make the Dean’s List. I did, and I became one of the family.”

Two important members of his EKSC family were legendary Eastern coaches/administrators Charles “Turkey” Hughes and Fred Darling, both of whom the business and physical education major often sought for counsel.

“I’d go to Turkey Hughes for advice because I didn’t want to make mistakes and make the director of admissions look bad,” he said. It was much the same with Darling. “It always seemed like (Hughes and Darling) had time for me.”

The initial call from Townsend was Davidson’s first contact of any sort with his soon-to-be alma mater.

“I was astonished,” he said. “All of a sudden a door opens, and there’s a big, bright light. It’s an accomplishment, something I finished.”

That light dimmed a bit a few weeks ago when Davidson learned that his cancer, which had been in remission, had returned, necessitating a new round of chemotherapy treatments.

But he wasn’t about to miss his big day. So you can imagine the disbelieving look on his physician’s face when Davidson shot back, “I’ve got to graduate from college, and then I’ll be back.”

With family members seated in the front row, a beaming Davidson was greeted by an admiring President Michael Benson and a standing ovation as he briskly made his way across the stage during the College of Business and Technology commencement and earned a long-awaited general studies in business degree.

Ironically, the ceremony was held in the University’s Alumni Coliseum, the construction of which Davidson had closely watched as a student in the early 1960s.

“I lived my life always trying to do the right thing,” he said. “This is the crème de la crème.”