Builder gets degree, 39 years on

16:00, Dec 12 2011
Duncan McKee
FAMILY COURT: Builder Duncan McKee has finally graduated Victoria University with his law degree, with plenty of help along the way from nine-year-old Rex, Kiriahi, 10, his wife Nicole, eight-year-old Brereton and Jakarna, 14.

Almost four decades after he first swaggered into a lecture hall, builder Duncan McKee has nailed his law degree.

As a snake-hipped 18-year-old in 1973, Mr McKee rode his motorbike to a year of law lectures at Victoria University before partying got the better of him.

Today, 39 years and four kids later, he will join thousands of other Victoria graduands on a parade through Wellington as the proud holder of a law degree.

"It's taken a long time, hasn't it," Mr McKee, 57, said to wife Nicole, who chuckled at the understatement as she helped him prepare for graduation last night.

"But it was a different world then. When you're young, you sort of have different ideals, you know. You roll along to law school thinking, `This will be fun,' and you've got a few parties to go to ... I failed miserably."

Determined to give tertiary education another crack, Mr McKee returned to university in the late 70s to complete a bachelor of arts degree and briefly turn his hand to teaching. He then realised he was "more of a tradesman at heart" and trained as a builder.

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That's when he met Nicole, and the pair settled down to have kids.

With the purse strings starting to tighten, Mr McKee decided in 2001 to finish his law degree – until it came time for his final exams.

The morning of the criminal law paper, his wife went into labour and he helped to deliver their youngest daughter, Brereton, now 8, in the living room.

"I just couldn't go. With childbirth, the world stops, doesn't it, and everything else is irrelevant," Mr McKee said. "The law school did say at the time my reasons for not appearing were unusual."

He made the final attempt at law last year, when he realised he could not work as a builder until his old age to support his children.

"Being on the tools is a good job, but I didn't want to be there in another 10 years. I figured to go back to my original career choice would position me well – as long as you've got your brain, you can do it for ever."

It was difficult to be back among the "bright, young kids" and he was one of the only students who took notes with pen and paper. At nights, Mrs McKee would bundle the children into the car in their pyjamas to drive them to the university for tea with dad.

"It was like diving in a swimming pool and you can't swim," he said. "You walk out of a lecture after 50 minutes and your head's spinning – this is complex material coming at you."

His wife and children Jakarna, 14, Kiriahi, 10, Rex, 9, and Brereton accompanied him at graduation. "We're absolutely stoked, it's been a long haul for all of us," Mrs McKee said.

The Dominion Post