From pilot to graduate: How one man proved it's never too late to get your degree

by Stephen Jamieson | Oct 13, 2023


Jun 14, 2023 | Academic ProgramsAlumniNewsletterStudents

Ben Cason
Ben Cason stands with his plane

Story by Mary Poe
Photos courtesy of Ben Cason and Jeanne Defauw.

A young U.S. Air Force pilot Ben Cason, stationed at Eielson Air Force Base in 1976, enrolled in the
Master of Business Administration program offered at UAF. In addition to taking classes and working as a Cessna T-37 Tweet pilot, he had two children attending North Pole Elementary School, and, later, they welcomed a third child who was born at Bassett Army Community Hospital. After completing all but one course at UAF, he was reassigned and moved to Charleston, North Carolina, in 1978.

Following 10 years of service, Cason left the military, became a flight instructor and a business owner. Retired now, he flies for a non-profit organization called Angel Flight Soars. Angel Flight Soars is a non-profit organization that matches individuals in need, who must travel long distances for their healthcare
needs, with volunteer pilots willing to donate their time and aircraft to get them there at no cost. So far, Ben has flown more than 100 people to care facilities across the East Coast.

Cason. daughter
Ben Cason stands with his daughter, Jeanne while stationed at Eielson Airforce Base, Alaska

“I remember him taking classes as a kid, but he didn’t talk about how he didn’t finish much. Then a few years ago he helped a World War II pilot get his high school diploma, and I think that inspired him to finish his degree.” – Jeanne Defauw

However, Ben was unable to complete the last class he needed to receive his MBA through UAF, as online classes were not offered at the time, and relocating back to Alaska was not a feasible option for him and his family once he separated from the military. Consequently, he had a 45-year break in his academic career.

During the summer of 2022, Ben contacted Angel Buchanan, CBSM’s Graduate Advisor, to ask about completing his degree. Angel helped him retrieve his paper records from the archives, and then matched the classes he had already taken to currently offered courses. A petition to reinstate Cason was supported by a number of units at UAF, including the UAF Admissions office, CBSM, Graduate School and the Office of the Registrar. Ben was able to enroll in his final course during the spring semester of 2023.

“It was an honor to get to work with Mr. Cason through this final educational chapter at UAF. It is wonderful to see him finally recognized for the work that he started so many years ago. I am also thankful to the many individuals at UAF who offered support as we worked through the many layers of petitions and approvals. It was an honor to see his name in the 2023 Commencement program.” – Angel Buchanan, CBSM Graduate Advisor

Dr. Nancy Cason, Ben’s daughter, commented, “The whole family is so proud of Grandpa Ben. This will definitely be a story to tell his grandkids about, and be a reminder that you can achieve your goals no matter what age. I loved that dad kept us kids in the loop with his projects and how his class was going throughout the semester. I remember him taking classes when I was a kid in Alaska, and all of us are so proud of him receiving his MBA.”

ben family
Ben, second from right, posing with family on a trip in June 2022

In May 2023, Ben Cason completed his Master of Business Administration at the age of 78. Ben said, “I was so close. I thank Angel for helping me get my MBA. I always regretted not getting it before. Looking back over my more than 70 years, I want people to remember me for flying the sick kids and helping those families. Finishing my degree was for me, but I try to do as much as I can for those families who need the help. It breaks my heart to see these kids having to travel so far to get treatment.”

“Ben has been an integral part of Angel Flight Soars and goes above and beyond for the patients we serve. Not only has he been flying missions for nearly a decade, he helps provide ground transport and overnight stays at his pilot friend’s bed and breakfast. Oftentimes, when inclement weather prevents missions from flying, he donates frequent flyer miles. Ben has recruited numerous volunteer pilots to help us by working airshows, recruiting students as a flight instructor and being well known in the aviation community! He is our pilot of the year in North Carolina helping to get patients to the medical care they need within all of our states that we cover: Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and the Carolinas. Congratulations Ben!” – Bernadette Darnell, Director of Mission Operations for Angel Flight Soars, Inc.

Opal Padgett, and Angel Flight soars' patient, sleeping in a photo with a thank you note.

MaireJo Padgett, the mother of one of Ben’s volunteer missions, recalled, “Our family met Mr. Ben through Angel Flight Soars back in 2019. Our youngest child, Opal, has several extremely rare medical conditions. We needed to see a specialist at Seattle Children’s Hospital …. we live in Birmingham, Alabama. Mr. Ben is the only reason we made it to Seattle. Without even meeting or knowing us, he provided us with round trip airline tickets. He talked me through how to navigate the airports and even took into consideration which airports would be easiest for us to get through with Opal in her wheelchair. He thought of everything. I cried tears of relief and gratefulness as I spoke to him. Mr. Ben’s extensive knowledge as a pilot and unlimited generosity changed our lives forever. He has done so much for us, and we’ve never even met. Mr. Ben is our hero.”

While Ben was not able to travel to Fairbanks to attend the commencement ceremony, he has made a significant impact on so many people at CBSM. He demonstrated determination and dedication to being a lifelong learner and making his dreams come true, no matter your age.