Student, 86, returns to Ilitch School to earn M.B.A.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story originally appeared on Today@Wayne

Charles Tholen’s professional journey spans seven decades, highlighted by promotions, higher education, accreditations and two retirements.

Today, the 86-year-old — who specializes in appraisal and consulting for automotive dealership facilities — is a principal at the firm that carries his name, Tholen Real Estate.

When not at the firm, playing a round of golf or embarking on his daily three-mile walk, Tholen may be found in a classroom at the Mike Ilitch School of Business taking in a lecture as part of the necessary curriculum towards earning his M.B.A. Pursuing another degree was a choice that Tholen says is both intellectually challenging and socially satisfying.

“Getting back to academic thinking was just what I needed to keep my mind active, which brought me to Wayne State to complete an M.B.A. that I started years ago at the University of Michigan. I like being associated with bright, highly motivated and diligent students, and learning much from our classes.”

Returning to the classroom was a decision with several stops along the way. Following a three-year stint majoring in history at Trinity College-Hartford, Connecticut, Tholen joined Sinclair Refining Company in 1955 as a sales representative selling retail and commercial fuel oil and heating equipment in New York.

A year later, he received a draft notice from the U.S. Army, calling him into service for a two-year commitment, where he worked as a finance clerk with the 76th artillery at Fort Devens, Massachusetts. Following discharge, he rejoined Sinclair Oil in New York as a sales representative, advancing to real estate representative charged with acquiring service station sites. While working his full-time job at Sinclair, Tholen attended Hofstra University, where he earned a bachelor’s in business administration.

In 1963, Tholen moved to Michigan and began a long-term career connection with Ford Motor Company in its Dearborn headquarters. As real estate manager, he fulfilled myriad roles, including directing the acquisition of commercial real estate and management of dealership properties, the design and construction of dealership facilities, and the disposal of surplus properties. Under his direction was a staff of negotiators, property managers, architects, engineers and administrative personnel.

Following a 27-year run at Ford, Tholen decided it was time to retire — or rather, transition into a “type” of retirement. From 1990-97, he worked as a real estate appraiser of dealerships as collateral for mortgage loans from captive finance companies, such as GMAC.

Finally, in 1997, Tholen decided that it was the right moment to hang it up. “I thought this would be a good opportunity to spend more time as a typical retiree, playing golf three times a week, and volunteering with my appraisal societies and church,” Tholen said.

Retirement number two has been, according to Tholen, a time for enjoying family, golf, volunteering and circling back to another passion — learning. About three years ago, he decided it was time to pick up where he left off on an earlier M.B.A. program and enrolled at Wayne State University in the Mike Ilitch School of Business.

“I chose Wayne State because it was affordable, and the business school administrators were willing to work with me to pull together my transcripts over several years and design just the right program for me,” Tholen remarked.

During the fall semester, on any given Monday evening, Tholen can be located in a lecture room at the Mike Ilitch School of Business where BA 7000 (Managerial Accounting) is offered. Mark Savitskie, lecturer of accounting and Tholen’s professor, says he’s the most unusual student he’s ever had in a class.

“I noticed him right away because he was ‘older.’ I thought maybe 60 or so. He sat in the front of the class, asked questions, made comments and has been very engaged since day one. I figured he was getting the M.B.A. to address a lost job and to squeeze out five to ten more years of work. I never would have guessed that Charles is 86 years old and a 20-year retiree. I think Charles’ story is an inspirational message for everyone.”

What does the future hold for Charles Tholen?

“I’m just taking one class per semester towards my M.B.A., so it’s a few years away from completion. I’m not in a big hurry. Classes are challenging and stimulating. As long as I’ve got my health, I’ll continue to push forward.”