GRIFFITH — Valerie Gonzalez has fond memories of that day in May 18 years ago when she walked across the stage at Purdue University Calumet and earned her bachelor's degree in communications/public relations.
"I was so excited," the Griffith woman recalled.
"I bought the cap and gown. I bought a new dress and new shoes. It was a beautiful day. My husband Tony and I both earned our bachelor's degrees. We went over to my mother-in-law's house in Griffith, and we had a little party with family and friends."
University graduates typically don't receive their diploma at commencement exercises but, rather, weeks later in the mail. But for Gonzalez, now 42, that never happened.
Life was busy. She worked as a freelance writer for publications in the Chicago and Northwest Indiana area. She put together newsletters and resumes for clients. Every now and then, Gonzalez thought about the fact that she didn't have that piece of paper that proved she'd earned her degree, but she was always too busy to take time out to deal with it.
She and her husband had three children, and she continued to take on jobs. Her husband went back to Purdue Calumet and earned his MBA. Then, the family was devastated when her husband died in November 2012.
Gonzalez didn't think about that piece of paper again until a couple of years ago, saying, "it always kind of stuck in my craw."
Last summer, she decided to check into it. She discovered she had an outstanding library fine of nearly $300.
"I didn't even recall checking out the book in question," she said. "I remember I was working on a group project, and we were always in the library using their resources. I don't remember if the journal was ever returned. I just had no idea.
"But at the same time, I was starting a new business. We leased this building on Main Street in Griffith in January 2016, and we began the renovations. My partner and I had the idea that we would start a specialty grocery shop. It's a little cheese shop that offers about a hundred different kinds of cheese and cured meat. We also offer craft beer and wine," Gonzalez said.
It took four months to complete the renovation. Gonzalez's new business opened in April 2016. It's called "Charcuterie," a French word for smoking and curing meats like bacon and salami made and sold in a delicatessen-style shop.
Change of fate
One day not long after she opened, Gonzalez said it was just a "stroke of luck" that one of her former professors — Tom Roach — came into the delicatessen.
"I recognized him and reintroduced myself," she said. "I asked him to look into it for me."
Roach, now associate professor and head of the Department of Communication & Creative Arts, said he definitely remembered her name, and as he thought more, he remembered her face.
"It was my first time in the store," he said. "I was looking for exotic cheeses, Feta cheese for my Greek salad, and someone told me to check out her store. She mentioned to me that she wasn't sure if she ever graduated because she never received the degree.
"She was in a class called Problems in Public Relations and those students do a really intense project. Anybody who takes that class becomes like family, and I was able to connect her back to that," he said, also remembering he gave her an incomplete.
Things moved quickly after that. Roach resolved the incomplete for the class, and talked to the library officials and found out the book was returned. The fine was reduced to just late charges of $35. Roach paid the fine.
"I'm saving it as a souvenir," he joked.
Roach said the university never printed a degree for Gonzalez and did a special printing of it dating it back to 1999.
Roach then dressed in full academic regalia including his robe and cap and drove to Gonzalez's shop on Main Street in Griffith to personally deliver the degree.
"I'm walking down the street in Griffith in this bright purple robe, so it was a bit of pomp and circumstance," he said. "There were also people in the store so there was an audience."
Gonzalez said she was completely surprised when Roach walked into the store.
"It was a little overwhelming," she said. "They went to a lot of trouble to put it all together. It was the best graduation I could have had — even better than the first one."