Age Is No Barrier To This MGA Music Student

Author: Sheron Smith
Posted: Tuesday, October 20, 2020 12:00 AM
Categories: Students | School of Arts and Letters | Pressroom | Faculty/Staff

Macon, GA

Dolan Suggs at the piano with his MGA instructor, Dr. Christian Kim.

Dolan Suggs describes himself as a “returning” Middle Georgia State University student.  But he’s a bit more than that.

At 74, he is the oldest student pursuing the University’s Bachelor of Arts in Contemporary Musicianship. He is likely the only current degree-seeking student who can say he attended the Macon Campus way back in the day, when it was a small, newly opened junior college on the outskirts of town. When Suggs re-enrolled nearly 50 years later at what is now Middle Georgia State (MGA), the registrar’s office had to root around an archival database to find his Macon Junior College academic record.

In the half century between his two enrollments, the Warner Robins native transferred to the University of Georgia, pursued but did not finish a music degree, moved to New York City to try to break in as an off-Broadway piano accompanist, returned to the South, and stumbled into the lumber transportation field – a career that took him all over the world.

Back in his hometown after his 2012 retirement, Suggs managed rental houses and played piano for a couple of churches. About two years ago, he read somewhere that state residents ages 62 and older can take classes tuition-free at University System of Georgia institutions.

“At first I thought I was too old to try to finish a degree,” he said. “But then I thought, ‘Why not?’ It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. It’s been incredible how the younger students and the faculty have welcomed me.”

His MGA piano instructor, Dr. Christian Kim, said Suggs is a joy to teach.

“He was already an experienced pianist when he came to MGA but he is eager to become an even better musician,” Kim said. “He inspires all of us with his enthusiasm and demonstrates a great work ethic to our younger students.”

Following in the footsteps of his musically oriented parents, Suggs began playing the piano as a young teen. He had some formal lessons but mostly taught himself. After his 1964 graduation from Warner Robins High School, Suggs was drafted into the military and wound up in the Navy, where he played piano in chapel services.

After his discharge, Suggs returned to Warner Robins and pondered his next move. It was 1970. He still loved playing the piano and wondered if he could make a career out of it.

“Macon Junior College was brand new at the time, and one of the most affordable places to study piano,” he said. “My initial thought was that maybe I could become a concert pianist. But then I transferred to UGA, where it seemed like there were a thousand students in the music program who wanted to be concert pianists.”

Suggs could not stomach the idea of trying to compete in that environment, but he continued to play piano at churches, weddings, and parties. When a friend who was studying at the Julliard School suggested he move to New York City to try his luck there, Suggs did.

“Sure enough, I was able to play piano for a few ‘off-off-off’ Broadway shows,” he said, chuckling. “Between that and a part-time job I was able to survive.”

After his mother died unexpectedly following a heart attack, Suggs returned to Warner Robins to be with his father. His father worked at the Blue Bird Corporation in Fort Valley and helped his son get a job there. One day, Suggs helped deliver some school buses to Savannah, which he had never visited even though he was a Georgia native. 

He immediately fell in love with the coastal city. With his father in an emotionally better place by then, Suggs felt comfortable loading up his car with everything he owned and moving to Savannah without a job lined up or even a specific plan.

“After I got there, I came across a freight-forwarding company near where I lived,” Suggs said. “I just walked in and asked for a job. I mean, I cold-called them. They ended up hiring me on the spot and training me.”

He built on his experience at that company to move into what became a 30-year career as a broker in the lumber transportation business. As he steadily advanced, he went to work for an Atlanta-based company that sent him on business trips to nations around the globe, including China, Japan, Norway, Sweden, Germany, France, and the Czech Republic.

Suggs retired in 2012 and resettled in Warner Robins. Besides managing rental properties, he finds steady work as a church pianist (he currently plays for First Presbyterian in Warner Robins and First Presbyterian in Eastman) and, pre-COVID, regularly played at special events.

Obviously, there is no practical reason for Suggs to go after a university degree. Returning to MGA to finish his B.A. is strictly a bucket-list item, although he does appreciate the opportunity to enhance his piano skills and expand his general musical knowledge.

“My real love is jazz,” he said. “I think I can learn a lot about jazz piano from Dr. Kim. I’m also enjoying learning theory from Terry Cantwell, and I appreciate Dr. Rebecca Lanning’s leadership of the music department.”

Occasionally, Suggs encounters someone who seems puzzled that a guy his age, with a comfortable retirement, would decide to go back to school.  

“I just see it as a way to keep my brain sharp and alert,” he said. “It really doesn’t matter to me what anybody else thinks. I’m having a blast.”

Editor’s note: Anyone at MGA who would like to hear Suggs play piano can catch him at the 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 28, performance of music program students and faculty. That will be the final performance in this semester’s “Music for the Soul from the SOAL” (School of Arts & Letters) series, which takes place at the Macon Campus Student Life Center amphitheater.