Somerville Ph.D, 79, Enrolled at Rutgers as English Literature Freshman

Somerville resident Bob Mostello, a chemical engineer with a Ph.D and 20 patents to his name, is enrolled as a freshman English Literature major at Rutgers University. Credits: Nick Romanenko

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - During his career as a chemical engineer, Somerville resident Bob Mostello had little time for the humanities. Now, he says, “I can really get to appreciate the wealth of culture available in English literature.” 

English majors often endure raised eyebrows and the exasperated question: Just what do you plan to do with that degree? If only those dreamy students would take more STEM classes, then perhaps, they could have careers.

Bob Mostello has had one. Yet, at 79, Mostello is a freshman at Rutgers University New Brunswick’s School of Arts and Sciences majoring in English literature.

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Over the years, he earned a BS from what’s now NJIT and master’s and doctoral degrees from Stevens Institute of Technology, all in chemical engineering. He forged a successful professional life.

Mostello is the author or co-author of about 20 patents in industrial gas production, one of which was responsible for bringing in several hundred million dollars in sales over the last 25 years, “of which I earned $300,” he said.

Good humor aside, the lapses in his knowledge nagged at him.

“I have had a technical education which leaves little time for the humanities,” the soft-spoken Newark native said.

Married in 1965 to Kelly, Mostello and his wife raised four daughters; he's held several positions as a chemical engineer.

Now that his family is grown and he's working part-time, he has the opportunity to shift his attention elsewhere.

“I am working half-time and my family is grown,” he said. “I can really get to appreciate the wealth of culture available in English literature.”

Mostello enrolled in the fall and took two classes, “Poets and Power in Late Medieval England” and “Principles of Literary Study. “ Like most English majors, he admitted that he’s barely keeping up with the reading. Still, he earned an A and a B.

“I think the grades were based on looks,” he joked. “It has been largely poetry with a sprinkling of other literature in both courses.”

None of it came easily, but Mostello remained enthused over the challenge. He thumbed through Paradise Lost and read aloud:

Those spake for false dissembler unperceived for neither man nor angel can discern hypocrisy, the only evil that walks invisible except to God alone.

Mostello delighted in the words, allowing them to wash over him. “It is about the devil, who fools an angel in his speech,” he said. “It is terrific. I guess I have a right brain and a left brain so I really love that stuff and it’s the beauty of it.”

Mostello’s Catholic faith let him pick up on meanings sometimes lost on others, said his instructor, Danielle Allor, a graduate student. As old as some students’ grandfathers, Mostello naturally brought an alternate point of view to class.

“He brings a very different educational background,” Allor said. “On the first day of class I gave out a map of England and asked who could find London, and he was the only one who immediately knew where it was. It’s just that difference, just the experiences we have had. He has a much greater knowledge base of which to draw from. He has the background in technical writing instead of the writing we are doing in class.”

Humbly, Mostello doesn’t mention that. Instead he praised his classmates, fresh out of high school, for knowing much that he doesn’t. They’re familiar with writers he was unaware of.

“I don’t think I am well read – that is the issue,” he said.

Mostello is at ease introducing himself in class but unlike some older students, does not try to take over.

“Maybe I am still regarded as a bit of oddity in the class, but an acceptable one,” he said. “So if I had any advice that I could offer I would be happy to do that. They are all wondering about their careers or futures.”

Career advice from an English major, even a 79-year-old one, might be fanciful to many. But Mostello embodies the ultimate goal of a humanities education, said his professor, Colin Jager.

“There is all of this stuff right now, the value of a college degree in general, especially a degree in the liberal arts, all of this push toward STEM,” Jager said. “He is such a great example. He had a career in science, he is a great example of why anyone should get an English degree – he loves to talk, loves to think, his motives are utterly pure. He is doing it for himself.

“We are at a moment where everything is being instrumentalized,” Jager continued. “What are you going to do with that? He does not have to answer that question. He is a pure example of why you would pursue a liberal arts degree.”

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