If the International Olympic Committee were to award medals for academic achievement in the face of obstacles, Archie Fineberg would have his place on the podium.
In spite of a spotty early career in school, then working full-time as a financial manager, and this winter coping with serious illness, Fineberg graduated with distinction in June from Concordia University’s Liberal Arts College – it was his third university degree and he’s 73!
Fineberg’s story is a testament to an individual’s thirst for greater knowledge in an expanding intellectual universe – a reminder that there is much for us to do and learn, and the structured environment of formal classes can be a good way to get there.
But before you take that route, know, as Fineberg says, that to return to school after years away takes real commitment, which was among the drivers of his success. He maintained a strong 3.7 GPA, good enough to merit the “with distinction” degree, even though he was unable, following the surgery and seven weeks of rehab, to attend classes and write final exams.
But his professors recognized his steady and quality work since enrolling in September 2010, and awarded his degree based on his performance, and a 20-page paper on the children of Holocaust perpetrators and their anguish.
“I worked my butt off – that’s basically what it means,” he commented on the experience as we chatted in the relaxed and flower-filled setting of the cottage he shares in Notre- Dame-de-Grâce with his wife, writer/broadcaster Elaine Kalman Naves.
Yet, growing up in the 1940s and 1950s surrounded by eager over-achievers at Talmud Torah elementary on St. Joseph Blvd., then Strathcona Academy and Outremont High in Outremont, school was not a slam dunk for young Arthur.
He was anything but focused, had to repeat grade nine and got his high school leaving certificate only after writing two supplemental exams.
“I was completely discouraged about school,” he reflected. Still, he succeeded in getting his Bachelor of Commerce with a major in accountancy, graduating in 1966 from Sir George Williams College.
Fineberg began his professional career, but, as he recalled, he knew he could do better and set out to make it happen. “I was really quite determined to prove to myself that I could succeed.”
He also realized that, given his personality, the best way for him to reach goals was through a structured environment of formal courses, with deadlines, research papers, and exams.
After marrying his first wife, he left the comfort of working for his father and set out to get practical experience in accountancy, working for a major pharmaceutical firm, then for Clarkson Gordon.
At that point he took a major leap, taking a qualifying course in Calculus to start his MBA at Sir George, which he could do at first with scholarship support from the Quebec government, then working part time to support a growing family while continuing his studies.
In April, 1973 he graduated with his MBA on the dean’s honour list. “This was very, very important to me,” he recalled, and it helped overcome “self-esteem issues” that lingered from his teenage and early adult years.
That MBA was a Rubicon event for Fineberg, who says at the time, “I took it as a challenge, tried to do the best I could.”
After working for Northern Telecom he began a 36-year career with Wenger’s Ltd. importing firm, where he stayed for 36 years and was vice-president of finance until retiring in 2014. But Fineberg never stopped taking courses, and kept stimulating his mind with music appreciation, Shakespeare, philosophy and French for Professionals, at McGill and Thomas More Institute.
In 1993 he followed a one-year advanced management program at McGill.
The big leap into a major academic challenge that led to his third degree came in September 2010 when he enrolled in Concordia’s Liberal Arts College, attracted by its promise to teach “the best that has been taught and said in history, philosophy, literature, religions, science, music and art in the western tradition.”
“I wanted to learn new things, from people who are really steeped in the subject. It was a major commitment, but I knew I would end up learning something,” he said.
The core program involved reading great books, starting with such classics as Homer’s Odyssey, Dante’s Inferno, Don Quixote and Beowulf, which he now says,
“frightened the hell out of me, but wow, what a great book!”
The second level included such classic novels as Moby Dick, Pride and Prejudice, and Madame Bovary, which he says “opened up a new world for me.”
Then came two years of philosophy, from the Greeks on to the English philosophers such as Hume and Hobbes, followed by a move into the 20th century, with readings that ranged from Freud to Virginia Woolf, Walt Whitman to Primo Levi.
Music history, art history, the history of science, Asian religions, graffiti and street art added up to a broad survey of civilization based on specific content.
While much of this can be gleaned from private reading, Fineberg knows what works best for him: “I do better when I have a well-defined structure. It suits me very well.”
The art history course fascinated him the most — so much so that he has signed up for a 90-credit program at Concordia for another degree in Fine Arts. As with the liberal arts program, he received 30 credits for courses taken.
Small classes, with no more than 20 students, and teachers whose enthusiasm and availability continued in the after-class hours, contributed to his academic experience, even when life events, such as mourning the death of his brother halfway through the first semester, could easily have derailed the process.
In spite of his cancer, he completed the research and handed in his final paper.
“When I found out I needed surgery, I really put out extra effort to complete the project,” he said.
Of course, it wasn’t all rosy. Most of the students were 20–somethings. “The majority of them would not even make eye contact with me. Some were polite, some looked the other way. I felt a little bit isolated, but I understood.”
His message to fellow seniors: “Don’t just sit around playing bridge, going to outings with fellow seniors, or playing golf. Do something to enrich yourself intellectually: stretch yourself, learn something, It’s really very satisfying.”