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Released July 14, 2003

FORMER SEAMAN SAVORS MIX OF ACADEMICS, OCEANS AT SOUTHERN MISS

OCEAN SPRINGS - As a 17-year-old in Ghana, Thomas Ayodele chose a life of adventure at sea over his father's edict that he earn a university degree.

Now, nearly four decades later, The University of Southern Mississippi student is enjoying opportunities across the coast, bringing his affinity for the ocean together with his father's academic goals.

This summer Ayodele is at the university's Gulf Coast Research Laboratory in Ocean Springs, studying barrier island ecology, oceanography and marine biology. His academic work with Southern Miss at Gulf Park in Long Beach earned him a place on the spring semester's Dean's List, and he will finish his degree in mathematics in December with a minor in industrial engineering and biological sciences. He plans to work toward a master's in physical oceanography with the Southern Miss Department of Marine Science at Stennis Space Center starting in March.

The oldest of three brothers and three sisters, Ayodele spent his childhood in the seaport city of Takoradi on the west African coast.

Ayodele said: "I grew up in two cultures. We lived in Ghana, but we were Nigerian and carried on Nigerian traditions. My people say the 'sea never dries. Wherever there is the ocean, there is always going to be some kind of hustle going on.' Daddy always said, 'Live close to the ocean, and you will never starve.'"

The hustle of the sea included Ayodele's friends, mostly merchant seamen.

"They would come home and talk about Europe, America, the Far East," Ayodele said. "They always had a lot of money, and some of them couldn't even write their names. I thought, 'if they can do that, then I can do even better. I can go to school overseas.'"

Once he finished high school, his choice to become a merchant seaman meant he had to leave home. His father, a top official in the Ghana railway system, was firm that "you finish high school, you go to the university, and you get a degree."

Ayodele jumped at the first job offered by a ship. He fudged on his age, passed for an 18-year-old, got a passport and shipped out on a Greek ship. After encountering his seaman friends in Germany, he signed on with German ships. The pay was better, and he worked with German companies for the next 13 years, traveling around the world on the huge oceangoing merchant ships.

He wound up on the Mississippi Gulf Coast through a job on a ship that delivered bananas from Central America to Gulfport every 10 days. There followed a marriage, a daughter and two sons - and finally U.S. citizenship. Through it all he maintained his professional connection to the sea. That ended in 1990, when circumstances mandated that he become sole caretaker of his children.

"The judge would not give custody to a sailor," Ayodele said. So, he gathered up his resources and purchased a farm in Saucier so that he could be at home during the day for his kids. He sold pine straw to landscapers and grew and sold farm produce. He also acted on his father's original plan for an education.

"Because of my father's philosophy, I had wanted to save money and go to college," he said. "I got my GED and started at Jeff Davis (Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College)."

Soon, he transferred to Southern Miss on the coast. Now, with his children well on their way toward independence, a master's in oceanography seems like a real possibility. He anticipates that his ocean going in the future will be via computer, working on numerical models of ocean systems.

His education is a valued milestone in a life that fulfills his name. In Nigerian his family name means "Joy has arrived into my home."

"It hasn't been easy," he said. "It was just me and my kids. Like everything in life, you have to work hard. You might not get it when you want it, but it will come."

Ayodele added: "A bachelor's degree at 54? Only in America! I thank God every day that I made the right choice and came to America. Work hard and believe in yourself. Never ever give up. It will happen; it will happen," he said.

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April 20, 2004 4:09 PM

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