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Northern College’s recent grad is 71 years young, with no sign of slowing down

Farms, churches, oil fields and mines — Bradley Davis has done it all
Bradley Davis (right) receives his diploma from Jim Kendall, instructor and program coordinator at the Haileybury School of Mines, after graduating from the school's mining engineering technician program at the age of 71. He now plans to pursue a graduate degree.

Bradley Davis says he has no plans to call it a career, just yet.

At 71, the self-described “eternal optimist” recently graduated from Northern College’s mining engineering technician program, becoming one of the school’s oldest graduates in recent history and bringing home a few academic awards in the process.

The four-semester program blends distance learning with a hands-on, two-week component at the world-renowned Haileybury School of Mines and teaches the basics of working in the mining industry.

The program has been rapidly expanding, experiencing a 50 per cent growth from 2019 to 2020.

Some of that can be attributed to the school’s flexible delivery system, but also an increase in interest for potential employees looking to enter the lucrative mining field. 

As for Davis, earning his diploma is just another credential he’s added to a lifelong career of reinventing himself.

“I think people sometimes get almost landlocked into a life where they figure there's nothing else out there,” Davis said. “But there really is, there's a lot of things a person can do.”

It’s that unwavering belief — something pretty good is waiting just around the corner — that propels Davis constantly forward when others his age are settling into retirement. 

So what keeps Davis going?

Davis credits a youth spent tinkering with machinery on his family farm in Chatham Township with instilling the curiosity — not to mention the confidence to get his hands a little dirty — as one of the secrets to lifelong success.

“You learn different things on the farm,” Davis said. “Especially as a teenager, when you’re trying to make a bit of money, you work with your neighbours. If they’re in tobacco or they're doing hay and straw, you learn to drive different types of tractors, or how to drive a truck, or drive a car. How to fix things.”

“You’re always learning something.”

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His first years saw him in a one-room schoolhouse in the township, then a few more at a high school in nearby Dresden, showing an aptitude for technology and the trades.

His grades were good enough to gain him admission to Western University, where he graduated with a bachelor of science degree in applied math.

But graduating in 1983 was a strange era. Canada was mired in a recession and employment wasn’t easy to come by.

“You couldn't hardly buy a job at that time,” Davis said. “I was 30 at the time, and interest rates, I think, for mortgages was like 20 per cent. It was just crazy.”

But his ability to learn, adapt and tinker — much like did growing up on the farm — allowed him to tough through the lean times, and pick up what education he could.

Davis now goes by a few different titles — a teacher, for one, after five years at the helm of a university classroom at the Shandong University of Technology in China. 

Pastor, for another, tending to his faith community at the Church of Christ in London, Ont. 

There were also years spent as a successful life insurance broker and two decades as an alignment tech at General Motors’ diesel plant in London, where, as Davis said, he became “really good” at what he did. 

Good enough that executives with the automotive giant selected the former farmer as part of a delegation to visit factories in the Netherlands, Mexico, India and China, years that spurred his love of travel and learning new languages. Davis says he can hold a conversation in both French and Mandarin. 

After retiring from the GM plant, Davis “kicked around for a bit” out west for Schlumberger, a world leader in the oil and gas industry. He worked in the coil and tubing division for a couple of years, then picked up his Class A licence for tractor-trailers. 

Then, a return to Ontario where he obtained his tax certification. Each new endeavour and interest adds another line item on the resume or, as Davis calls it, “updating” himself. 

In short, you just can’t pigeonhole Davis, or predict where his next steps will take lead.

“I’ve always liked the movie Shawshank Redemption,” Davis said, citing the 1994 film starring Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins. “Especially when [character Andy Dufrense] says, ‘Get busy living, or get busy dying.’”

But despite his unflagging optimism, times weren’t always so cheery. 

After a few stifling months in the COVID-19 lockdowns, where he could only communicate with his grandkids through a window screen — “tough, frustrating” times — Davis turned his attention to a new interest: EV batteries and the changing technologies in the automotive industry. 

“They're all talking about EV cars, geology and the mining industry,” Davis said. “It's part of what's going on on our planet, and it’s part of the future.”

And with his background in automotive technology, Davis thought he could lend a hand, or at least learn about the new trends in the field.

“In 10 years, I don't think General Motors is going to have any more internal combustion engines,” Davis said. “It's all going to be electric vehicles, and all those minerals have to come out of the ground, especially the battery technology.

“And I thought, ‘Well, that's something I can get into. Maybe I can be a part of that.’”

So in his seventh decade, Davis researched the few schools in Canada that offered mining programs, which led him to Northern College’s mining engineering technician program.

The program consisted of distance learning — have a speedy computer, Davis recommends to potential students — combined with a two-week component at the Haileybury School of Mines each year, where participants go underground, take part in surveying the land, and get their hands on some real-world experience.

His age, Davis said, wasn’t a factor.

“I told the professor my age, because you could tell they were all curious in class,” he said, noting that he had more than a few years on Jim Kendall, the instructor and program coordinator at the Haileybury School of Mines.

“But they were all very accepting, all very welcoming. People at the school gave you just about everything you needed.”

It was a bit of a challenge going out on surveying trails, he said, which involved some rock-climbing, trail-crossing and a few bumps and spills. But he certainly didn’t feel out of place among his younger classmates.

“There were all kinds,” he said. “A broad spectrum. The youngest was a man in his 20s, another woman was in her 30s with a couple of kids; she was getting into mining like her husband.”

“Another lovely lady in her 40s, who I spoke to the other day, is now working for a mining company out in Newfoundland. They were all from the mining industry, except for me.”​

Northern College's Haileybury School of Mines is located on the school's Haileybury campus. | File photo

​Despite the sharper learning curve, Davis was more than up for the challenge of absorbing what he could, navigating the ins and outs of an entirely new field.

When the courses were done, and the marks were tallied, Davis found himself atop the list. He even won the HSMAA Mining Graduate Award, the Penwood Mines Book Prize for general proficiency, and the prestigious Gold Medal in Mining for achieving the highest academic standing in the program.

When speaking about Davis, Kendall said all of the students in the program are fairly tight-knit during the two-week stint in Haileybury, but this particular cohort gave some “pretty stiff competition … they were a really smart group.

“I’m proud of all the students,” Kendall said. “That’s me [in Davis’ grad photo] up there giving him a big hug…he did extremely well. Top marks.”

Davis certainly has no regrets about his choice, and he’d definitely recommend Northern College to anyone interested in a mid-career change, or seeking new learning opportunities. 

“When doing my studies, sometimes I'd be studying, right till four or five o'clock in the morning. And I'd ask myself, 'Are you okay?'

“I always have to look at the alternatives, and on this side of the fence, it looks pretty good.” 

The next stop, he said, will be a couple months of relaxation, blueberry picking in Thamesville and horseback riding. But not before attending another graduation — his granddaughter is wrapping up her elementary school career and having a celebration of her own. 

“The grandkids are the stars of my life right now,” he said.

And they’re more than supportive of his next plan — a graduate degree, more school, possibly at Queen’s University in Kingston.

“There's always something beyond, and a way to get there,” Davis said. “I always try to encourage people to move forward. It may not be the way they thought, but there is a way.

“No matter if there’s an obstacle or roadblock, there's always a way forward.”