Since we were in St. Louis I decided it might be fun to drive by the house I lived in the first five years of my life. My dad had told me the address and how the street name had changed since the ‘70s. 

As we drove into Northwoods, we found Charlie Dooley Drive.

Up around the bend was 4400. When we got there, the house was gone. It was an empty lot with a few trees and splotches of mud.

Down the street a man was outside, unloading his car. I went to see if he could tell me what had happened to the house.

I introduced myself. It turns out we’d been neighbors. He moved on to the street in 1974, three years before my family left for Indiana. He told me the house sat empty for years after the woman who lived there died. It got stuck in probate court. No one could buy it.

A few years ago the city tore the house down.

We talked some more, posed for a photo.

Then we told him why we’re town, talking to people about college. No doubt about it, he said, you need a college education. “What a college education says about you is that you have the ability to learn.”

Then he told us he didn’t have a college degree. He was born in St. Louis, graduated from high school, went off to the military, served in Vietnam.

He told us his name was Charlie. It took a while before it dawned on us: He is Charlie Dooley, the “prominent county politician” my dad had told me the street had been renamed for.

“What a college education says about you is that you have the ability to learn.”

After the military he worked at McDonnell Douglas for 30 years as a supervisor in a records division. Then he became mayor of Northwoods. A member of the St. Louis County Council. Eventually County Executive.

His daughter went to college, graduating with a degree in accounting from the University of Missouri-St. Louis. She’s in a graduate program at Webster University.

The cost of college is a challenge, of course. Now, he said, when you leave school it’s like you already have a mortgage but you don’t even have a house. You just have to resign yourself to paying for it, like a telephone bill. 

Charlie’s retired now. He’s 71, living on the street named after him, where he’d moved 45 years ago as a single man, looking for a home where he could store his motorcycle, four houses down from me.

The Back-To-School Road Trip
Over eight days we’re driving from Minneapolis to New Orleans, talking about college with Americans along the way. Follow us on Twitter: @opencampusmedia.

Co-founder and editor-in-chief of Open Campus