This 70-year-old former Army pilot will be a fresher in September

One for the bucket list


When you’re nearing retirement you might be reminiscing on your uni days, dreaming of a quaint countryside cottage and long walks on the beach with your faithful labrador.

But Mark Wilkins, 70, will mingle with freshers as he starts uni in September in what will be his seventh different career.

He said: “Each new job is like climbing a pyramid. This will be my seventh pyramid. Do you really want to spend the whole of your life doing the same thing? I mean, dentists, why would you want to drill teeth for your whole life?

“I’m going to uni because I want a change. It will delay Alzheimers and give me a new challenge. Besides, people at uni don’t realise how lucky they are. I do feel bad about the loan though, they’ll probably never get it back.

“I couldn’t retire. Like a shark, I have to keep moving or I’ll die.”

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Born in India in 1944, maverick Mark moved to Nairobi, to Germany for boarding school and finally back to Portsmouth for art school. His different jobs have taken him around the world.

He has a son and a daughter, and five grandsons. But on the 1st of September, Mark will enrol at Gloucetershire for a three year degree in Computer Animation, what he calls a “fascinating and broad subject”. He’ll commute from his home in Cheltenham to uni.

He speaks with a youthful exuberance, walking around the room as he traces his life down the phone. If he were anymore animated, I’d have questioned his age. He is quick to answer and strong with his opinions in the way you’d expect your grandparents to be.

He said: “I got a job that nearly drove me insane so I joined the Army for eight years flying helicopters for them. I spent six months with the UN in the Middle East, a couple of years during the cold war in Germany and then a few years in Northern Ireland when that was an exciting place to be.

“I managed a helicopter operation in Nigeria and flew on the North Sea, then lived in Singapore for a few years.

“I wanted to get out of flying and the oil industry so I started up my own printing business when Thatcher was telling us to all go for it. Then I got hit by the recession so I turned my hand to financial services, and eventually wound up fundraising for the last ten years.”

Me in Army 001

Mark's own painting, titled Parachutes. It hangs in the Officer's mess in the parachute regiment

Mark’s own painting, titled Parachutes. It hangs in the Officer’s mess in the parachute regiment

His fluid movement between careers seems to have rubbed off on his son, who acts as his inspiration. David Wilkins was given an MBE after being the first to fly an Apache gunship in the Iraq War, as well as the American Air Medal. “He’s got all sorts of medals,” quips Mark, evidently beaming with pride.

The Sandhurst graduate isn’t afraid of mingling with teens but said he’ll probably be less distracted than his fellow freshers by the women in the class. He added: “The great advantage of being a mature student is I’ve got rid of the distraction.

“As a young 20 something you spend half of your life speaking and thinking about sex. You young guys are all driven by your hormones. I’ll be less distracted by the women in the class. I’m really looking forward to it, it will keep the Alzheimers at bay.

“As a single bloke you can live on fresh air, but when you’re married you have to do all this stuff. I was married at 25, I could write a book about it. As a bloke, you need a decent income and that’s your job, that’s the deal.”

Self in Helo 001

Mark says he cannot wait to get into the learning envrionment, but won’t be seen downing Jägers in the SU bar. It’s another challenge for him. University is solely for him to develop as a person before it’s too late.

“Undoubtedly people will mistake me for a lecturer and ask me for directions.

“This could be the last hurdle, but might not be the final stand. I’m looking for a mental challenge and something I’ve never done before.

“Regardless of the world of work changing, you’ll always have to keep jumping ship and changing job.

“Being a pilot gave me a deep sense of intuition. I’m always thinking whats the next thing that’s going to kill me, always wondering when things will go wrong.”

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Mark is full of anecdotes, but his views on younger generations are mixed. There is a mixture of jealousy of having a whole life ahead of them, and sympathy for the hurdles yet to be faced or even thought of.

He has a deep fascination, almost a contemptuous one, for how students conduct themselves socially in the workplace.

“It’s ridiculous. I went to boarding school which I loathed, it did give you certain social skills. I went to Sandhurst, where 90 per cent went to private, which is wrong.

“It’s wrong to have to pay to have your child educated in that way.

“I’ve recruited people straight from uni in various occupations. The thing I notice is they don’t have face to face skills. When my kids got to that age I gave them lessons in shaking hands, what to look for, guard against, how to make eye contact, smile.

“They don’t seem to teach you that. As an employer you think what do they look like, how are they dressed, are they smiling, can they hold eye contact. Can they speak to a group of people. Do they have enthusiasm, or can they at least pretend. It’s so bloody important.”