When Dillon native Ellis Colvin graduates today from Charleston School of Law, he will fulfill a dream he’s had since his mother served on a federal grand jury in Charleston when he was 5 years old.
“Back in that era, ‘Perry Mason’ was on TV midday,” said Colvin, 52. “I related what she was doing with what was on TV and it stuck with me. I always knew I wanted to be a lawyer.”
When he graduated from Wofford College in 1983, “I was not in any position to go to law school,” said Colvin, who comes from a family of 10 children. “The biggest thing for me at that time was to be the first person in my family to graduate from college.”
He spent the next 21 years in the Army, working in intelligence and financial management and earning two master’s degrees while continuing to dream about law school.
Colvin and his wife, Cynthia, married in 1995 and waited 11 years to have children.
“Once you have children, you’ve got to get them to a point of viability so that they can function on their own,” he said. Daughter Caroline is now 16, and son Ellis is 12.
In 2003, he was ready to retire from the Army but was delayed a year because of war.
“When I finally got out of the service, my first instinct was not to do what was my passion, which was to go to law school, but to do what pays the bills,” he said. That was a job with the federal government.
During a 2008 visit to Dillon, one of his sisters asked if he had given up on law school.
“That’s when it really hit me,” he said. “I decided, OK, I’m going to do this thing. If it’s ever going to happen, it needs to happen now.”
First, he earned a third graduate degree, then he took the Law School Admission Test and applied to 32 law schools.
“I knew most schools were not going to extend an offer to an almost 50-year-old person,” he said. “Why should they let me take a seat from someone just starting out?”
John S. Benfield, associate dean for admissions at the Charleston School of Law, said it would have been hard to turn down Colvin.
“His maturity, leadership and skill set were worth a whole lot, and what he brings to a class is just hard to capture in a lot of applicants,” he said. “He’s got maturity and leadership and is a great all-around guy.”
Colvin deferred admission for a year, and during that time the Post-911 GI Bill went into effect. It paid for his education.
In 2010, with his family relocated to Daniel Island, Colvin finally entered law school.
“My first year, I was worried. Does the 50-year-old mind work the same as a 22-year-old’s mind? Law school is all technology-based and I didn’t type. I wrote on a legal pad. While others did their exams online, I wrote mine in blue books.”
There were also advantages.
“When we would talk about things like race issues, affirmative action, Brown vs. Board of Education, I lived this experience. I remember them and what it was like then.”
Colvin excelled in his classes and was awarded two CALI Excellence for the Future Awards, given to the highest scoring student in each class.
“You can’t attend the Charleston School of Law and not know Ellis,” said school Dean Andy Abrams. “He is involved in everything and he’s got such an enthusiasm and infectious spirit. He really exemplifies what we are all about.”
Colvin, who plans to return to the Washington area after graduation, is not the oldest student graduating today — he said there is a woman a few years older — but he believes, according to the American Bar Association, he may be the oldest African-American man in the United States to graduate from law school.
He’d encourage others to follow his footsteps.
“My advice to people who have a dream is don’t wait. Don’t procrastinate. Just do it. Don’t give yourself an excuse.”
Reach Brenda Rindge at 937-5713 or facebook.com/brindge.