More than half a century after he left Northwestern State University to serve his country, Robert Monroe “Johnny” Hays of Keithville will walk across the stage at Prather Coliseum to receive his associate degree in general studies. Hays and his family will share the special day with his grandson, Colby Cranford, who is earning a degree in Hospitality Management and Tourism and marketing during NSU’s afternoon commencement exercises Friday, May 10.
Born in 1944, Hays attended Northwestern State College from 1962-66, but left school to serve in the U.S. Navy from 1966-1972. He qualified for an associate degree through Project Win-Win, a national initiative in which a college audit determines if a student or former student has accumulated enough requirements for an associate degree. Hays’ daughter, Kristy Hays Koch, submitted the application earlier this year.
Hays, 75, graduated from Minden High School in 1962 and enrolled at Northwestern State as a pre-med major, which he later changed to agriculture. He took mechanical courses and worked his way through college by roughnecking in the oilfield. As his graduation approached during the Vietnam era, Hays began interviewing for jobs and discovered that many interviewers would ask about military service. Hays’ brother, who was four years younger, elected to join the Air Force rather than go to college and Hays decided to enlist in the Navy.
Based on high ASFAB scores, Hays was recruited to join the Navy’s nuclear power program. He later volunteered for submarine service where he was sent to Italy, Lebanon, Morocco, Spain, Malta and other ports in the Mediterranean Sea. As part of the nuclear power program, he was sent to the U.S. Naval Training Center in Bainbridge, Maryland, where he took courses in nuclear physics, calculus, chemistry and other courses related to nuclear power plant operations, which were under the direction of Admiral Hyman Rickover, known as “the father of the nuclear Navy.”
Hays’ Naval career continued as he completed secondary school in procedures and operations at the Naval Submarine Base New London in Groton, Connecticut. He then served at Pearl Harbor for three years on the USS Flasher, a nuclear fast attack submarine that was deployed to the Gulf of Tonkin. Hays also attended dive training classes, where he was certified in scuba and hard hat diving.
Hays married Gloria Calder in 1968 and found that sub duty was hard on family life. He has three daughters, Deborah Hays, Donna H. Cranford and Kristy H. Koch. At points in his career, he spent over 100 days without seeing sunshine and two Christmases below 600 feet. After retiring from the Navy, he returned to Louisiana and completed a machinist program and apprenticeship. He worked as a precision tool and die maker, joining the maintenance department at the General Motors Shreveport plant in 1981 where he worked for 28 years. He retired in 2008 but continues to work part-time at a shop in Shreveport repairing sewing machines, quilting machines and sharpening scissors.
“I’ve had a good life,” he said, anticipating his upcoming graduation, where he will be joined by his family. Another grandson, Dawson Cranford, is a current NSU students and is involved with Kappa Alpha and the NSU Fishing Team.
Graduation ceremonies begin at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. Friday, May 10 in Prather Coliseum. 10 a.m. graduates include those from the Gallaspy College of Education and Human Development, the Louisiana Scholars’ College and the College of Arts and Sciences with the exception of those receiving degrees in general studies. 3 p.m. graduates are those who will receive degrees in general studies along with those receiving degrees from the College of Nursing and Allied Health and the College of Business and Technology. Both ceremonies will be streamed live at nsula.edu.