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After A 40-Year Detour, 'Squidbillies' Star Takes Home His Diploma

Bobby Ellerbee, sporting his graduation get-up.
Henry P. Taylor
Courtesy of The Red And Black
Bobby Ellerbee, sporting his graduation get-up.

It's a perennial story: An older student returns to the classroom education he'd long set aside, finally finishing his studies and graduating years later. Typically, that story includes detours like service in war or a family tragedy.

Bobby Ellerbee's story, however, is not exactly typical. He took four decades to get his undergraduate degree in journalism from the University of Georgia — but it wasn't an obstacle that caused the delay. Instead, it was a successful — and remarkably diverse — career, which began even before he stepped foot in a college classroom.

"I started in radio when I was 16 years old, because my next-door neighbor owned a radio station," he tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer. "For 30 years, I did live shows every day."

He left the airwaves in the late '80s to pursue another love, he says — writing and producing commercials. He became the international voice of the Scotch whisky brand Johnnie Walker, roomed with the bassist for Lynyrd Skynyrd, Leon Wilkerson, even hung out with Eartha Kitt and Etta James for his 33rd birthday.

"Oh yes," he says, "that was quite a night. Been a lot of those along the way."

These days, he supplies the voice of the sheriff on the surreal adult cartoon Squidbillies, which features a family of squid in the hills of northern Georgia.

He says he returned to Georgia to take care of his parents around 2006. And, as long as he was back, he figured he'd take advantage of a little perk in state law.

"Not long ago, the state of Georgia passed a law that said if you're over 62, you can go back to college free," he says. So, he decided to take them up on it.

And, not surprisingly, these days his voice turns heads on campus.

"Our biggest demographic [watching Squidbillies] is young males from 18 to 24 or 32, and we sure have a lot of them at the University of Georgia, I'll tell you that," he laughs.

Whatever the divide in generations, this recent graduate says that connection forged by the show helps close the space between them.

"You know, I'm 65 and my cohorts there at Georgia are in their early 20s," Ellerbee says. "But as soon as we kind of start to laugh about some of the things we do on the show, we're all 20, you know?"

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