John VanBuskirk, right, taking the Texas Lawyer’s Oath administered by Judge Royal Furgeson.

After recently receiving a law degree at the age of 71, John VanBuskirk recalled the reaction of some of his fellow students to his name coming up in a discussion about whom had passed the Texas bar exam last month.

“Two of my classmates were talking, one said, ‘Did you hear that John VanBuskirk passed?’ And the other classmate said, ‘That’s too bad, I really liked that guy,’” he said. “By ‘passed,’ he thought I had died.”

A retired U.S. Army major who flew helicopters and later worked as a military hospital administrator all over the world, VanBuskirk, a graduate of the inaugural class of UNT Dallas College of Law, became heavily involved in community service in Dallas after retiring from the service in 2009. His passion is public service, and the vet later donated 1,400 hours of his free time to projects such as lobbying the Dallas City Council to supply more funding to its library.

And when UNT started taking applicants for its new downtown Dallas law school four years ago, VanBuskirk jumped at the chance. He’d missed an opportunity to join the U.S. Army’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps four decades earlier and had always regretted it.

“When I saw that this new law school opening up, I thought here’s an opportunity to do community service, but on another level,” VanBuskirk said. “I had the bug to go to law school parked in my brain when I was in the military.”

Most law school tuitions require students to mortgage their future, but VanBuskirk found that he was more than able to afford the $12,500 annual tuition the school charged its first students—well less than half the price tag charged at most Texas law schools.

“It’s the most affordable law school in Texas,” he said.

And VanBuskirk was serious about public service work while attending law school. He signed up to help screen clients at a Dallas Volunteer Attorney Program legal clinic two weeks into his first semester at UNT and would eventually rack up an astonishing 800 hours of pro bono work. He found the military life he was accustomed to prepared him for law school—it wasn’t unusual for him to wake at 3 a.m. to study. He made the dean’s list four times and graduated in January with a 3.21 GPA.

While he was the oldest graduate out of the 153 students in UNT’s first class, VanBuskirk was not alone in being a so-called “non-traditional student” in a class where the average age was 33. Many other students were also seeking a later-in-life law degree, including numerous other military veterans, he said.

“Traditional is right out of college,” he explains. “Non-traditional means you’re old.’’

“In the day classes, there was another retired Army officer, another retired major. And I sat the first two semester next to a former Marine, and there were some veterans in the night classes,” he said. “And by the time there was a full law school with three full classes, we had 42 veterans.”

During his time as a student, VanBuskirk interned for the 191st District Court in Dallas, Legal Aid of Northwest Texas, the chief counsel of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and for the Wake County Public Defender’s Office in North Carolina. And he was the founding president of the school’s Public Interest Law Student Association.

Royal Furgeson, the founding dean of UNT’s law school, quickly bonded with VanBuskirk, who he said was one of the school’s most popular students.

“John is just one of those unique and special people who just fit in and who embraced everybody, whoever they are. John also has the strong sense of public service, and he saw himself having an opportunity in his golden years to give back. And he didn’t wait; he gave 800 pro bono hours in law school. He started the first day,” Furgeson said. “He was beloved by the students and the staff. When John showed up, things got better. He was a real blessing to us.’’

So what is VanBuskirk going to do now that he’s got a bar card? He’s explains that he is currently looking for a job—one that pays him something, or maybe nothing.

“My wife asked me the same question. I did all of this pro bono work, and she said, ‘Can I ask you a question? Are you going to continue with the pro bono work or are you going to get a job and make some money?’” he said. “And the answer is, I’d like to do both. I actually just became a licensed attorney eligible to practice about six weeks ago, and I’ve done about eight pro bono clinics since then.”