Piano Man

Texas State jazz freshman Steve Ussery sits at the piano before his class he takes with his wife, Sunday, April 15, 2023.

Steve Ussery spent the last 30 years as a successful Silicon Valley engineer but has recently seized the opportunity to study one of his biggest passions, jazz music.

Steve is a 69-year-old freshman pursuing a degree in jazz music at Texas State. After moving back to Texas with his wife five years ago and retiring two years ago, he decided to put his newfound free time to use.

“I said, ‘What am I going to do next?’ So, I decided to go back to school and pursue a third degree,” Steve said. “This time something that actually interested me not something for a job or work.”

Steve discovered his love for jazz music in his teenage years, and he still loves it to this day. 

Steve began his college journey at Texas A&M College Station where he earned his bachelor's degree in civil engineering in 1977. He received a draft notice to serve in the Vietnam War and spent two years in the Navy one year post-war following his graduation.

Fresh out of college, Steve used his degree to help build a base on the island of Diego Garcia in the middle of the Indian Ocean. His second year as an E-3 Navy seaman was spent steering a destroyer ship at sea located out of San Diego.

Upon returning home, he began working for Central Power and Light Company in Corpus Christi, Texas. During his employment, he attended night school to earn his master's degree in computer science from Texas A&M Corpus Christi in 1989.

All of Steve's college education has been paid for by an ROTC scholarship, employee benefits, and now, the Hazlewood Act.

After dedicating nearly 10 years of his life toward his education, Steve worked as a software engineer for 30 years in Silicon Valley. There he worked for Apple, Adobe, Cisco, Microsoft and more.

“So essentially I’ve had three careers. Navy, civil engineer and now I'm going for jazz musician,” Steve said.

Steve has led an adventurous life, and retirement has not changed that. Despite his undying eagerness to learn, however, he had his fears before attending classes.

“I don’t want to criticize too much in Silicon Valley, but Silicon Valley is notorious for its age discrimination of older engineers,” Steve said. “I was afraid I was gonna face the same thing here. I have not. I’ve been totally accepted ... Nobody treats me, gives me any special treatment. People just take me as I am, and I love it."

In addition to music, Steve has taken political science and communications classes. His favorite class he has taken so far was communications last semester, he said.

"I was the star of the show, man. I'll tell you, they loved my lectures and my speeches, especially my speech on how to make an Apple laptop," Steve said.

Steve is a pre-music major, so he must audition to officially secure his spot in the program, which he fully intends to do when he feels ready.

“If you can’t tell, I’m an incurable optimist and a person that thinks he can do anything,” Steve said. “I'm just full of energy. I’ll keep on going no matter what.”

Brian Pardo, the professor for Steve's jazz history class, has taught at several universities including the University of California Berkley, the California Jazz Conservatory and Central Texas College, and he admires Steve's motivation to be here and encourages more people to follow in his footsteps.

“This is the only university I've ever taught for where having an older student in class is unusual,” Pardo said. “I wish more people did things like that.”

Rose Ussery, Steve's wife of 46 years, supports her husband’s endeavors to continue his education and become a jazz musician.

“He’s loved jazz for a really long time,” Rose said. “He worked long hours and he didn’t have time to practice. When he retired, he decided he wanted to go back to school, and that’s what he’s doing.”

Rose is not a student at Texas State, but she takes an audit class with her husband. As an audit student, Rose gets to attend the class, but she will not be included in the class transcript.

The couple's love of music brings them together, and they are learning to play the piano for the first time in a beginner's piano class, MUSP 1325, offered at Texas State.

Rose reflects on her husband's time here and notices the positive impact it has on him.

“He loves it," Rose said. "And he does a lot of walking, so that’s good. It’s exercise.”

In addition to attending classes, Steve participates as the guitarist for the Wimberley Valley Big Band, a twenty-piece band composed mostly of retirees like himself. The group plays their music for volunteer and charity events. They have also played at dances with a primarily older crowd where they play hits from past generations.

Steve said one of the biggest takeaways from his experience as a student so far is interacting with and observing his classmates.

“I am so impressed with my fellow students here,” Steve said. “Especially this current generation how motivated and ambitious they are. It just impresses the hell out of me.”

Pardo said he has noticed the positive interactions between Steve and the other students in his class.

“Everyone really likes working with him," Pardo said. "They know that he’s older and they are respectful of that and they appreciate that he’s here."

Moreover, Steve appreciates their presence and said spending time with his class peers keeps him young. Having gotten his prior degrees from A&M, Steve wasn’t sure what kind of school Texas State would be. He was pleasantly surprised.

“I was under the impression that Texas State wasn’t a very good university as compared to Texas A&M,” Steve said. “Yeah, I was wrong. It’s a very good school. It is an excellent school, and it deserves a better reputation than what it's getting.”

Steve took four classes last semester, but he plans on taking just one or two in the future.

“There’s no hurry, right?" Steve said. "I have all the time in the world."

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