Photo by Leslie McDaniel
"We were sitting in class, talking about World War II," he recalled. "The teacher asked, 'Who said, "We have nothing to fear but fear itself?"' One of the kids got up and said Winston Churchill. I said, 'No, not the way I remember it. It was Franklin Delano Roosevelt.'"
At 81 years of age, Ostrovsky is not the oldest full-time student at Montana State University, although he is certainly one of them. But few people on campus, faculty and staff included, have packed more into their lives than Ostrovsky, which makes him admired by fellow students more than 60 years his junior.
"You can't stop him," said Wade Montee, a freshman majoring in general studies. "He does anything he wants, and he enjoys every minute of it."
Ostrovsky has been a sailor, an entrepreneur, a pilot, an adventurer, a philanthropist. And in December 2010, he will also be a college graduate. His graduation with a Bachelor of Arts degree in history will mark the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.
Going to college was always a goal, Ostrovsky said, but life circumstances got in the way. The son of Russian immigrants, he was born in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., but was raised by his grandmother in Montreal, Canada.
"I was working from the time I was 16, 17 years old," he said. Ostrovsky joined the Navy post-World War II, completing service when he was just 20 years old. He moved to Los Angeles, started a family and said he worked tirelessly to support them.
"I was always proud of my three wonderful daughters, but I was also aware of how much I missed by not going to college at that stage in my life," Ostrovsky said.
Instead, Ostrovsky raised four children, built a highly successful national business in women's sports apparel, and flew his own private airplanes all over the world. He has trained with astronauts, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and explored the wreckage of the Titanic.
"I was always involved in things that occupied my mind," Ostrovsky said. He said while he still had a "burning desire" for education, "I just never had the time."
"When (Jack) cares about something, he throws his whole heart and soul into it," said Shelley McKamey, dean and director of the Museum of the Rockies. She said Ostrovsky was a generous and enthusiastic member of the museum's Board of Trustees for six years. One of his most legacies was the establishment of the museum's annual Dinosaur Egg Hunt, now a Bozeman tradition.
Despite his involvement with the university, Ostrovsky said he still didn't think that earning a degree would be practical.
"I thought it was unrealistic for me to even think that any more," Ostrovsky said. "I was long past the age of a college student."
Ostrovsky credited Peter Fields, MSU's athletic director, with helping him to think seriously about college again. The two became friends not long after Fields came to MSU in 2002.
Photo by Leslie McDaniel
"He didn't say much right then," Fields remembered. "Then one day we were having lunch at Starky's Deli. He said 'Peter, I want to go back to school.'"
Ostrovsky, with the encouragement of his wife, Donna, enrolled as a freshman at MSU in 2003.
"I woke up one morning and I was a college student," he recalled. "I can't tell you what that felt like. It was like the biggest dream of my life came true."
Beyond the education itself, he said the experience of university life is something everyone should have. "The camaraderie, the mixing with the contemporaries and sharing ideas --- it's so important. You miss it in later life."
Greg Young, MSU's vice provost for undergraduate education, met Ostrovsky during an MSU Honors Program travel course in Europe.
"His intellectual curiosity was infectious," Young said. "Given his amazing experiences all over the world and the stories he could share with students, I highly valued his interactions with students and faculty."
He's now in his senior year. "A senior senior," he joked, and the difference in years hasn't held him back from making relationships with students six decades younger.
"I've made wonderful friendships with kids," he said. "They've got the occasional earring and things coming out of their tummies, but I've learned to look beyond that. I've heard the questions they ask and how they get involved in conversation. It's taught me to be more respectful of the young generation."
The respect is mutual, according to Montee, Ostrovsky's schoolmate since January of 2008. "He makes me feel like the sky's the limit," Montee said. "I feel like I can do everything I want to do because Jack's done everything he wants to do. If I live up to half of what Jack has done, I'll turn out better than okay."
One student, in particular, holds a special appreciation for Ostrovsky's presence on campus.
"I have the deepest respect for him," said his 18-year-old son, Zach. The freshman in General Studies and aspiring filmmaker said he's proud to have his dad's legacy to inspire him. "How many people say 'I want to go to college' at his age, and then just do it? I'm so happy and proud of him."
Ostrovsky said he chose to study history because it's a way to learn from what he has lived through. Ostrovsky said he's more interested in having the diploma than using it, but he doesn't rule out the possibility of teaching history himself one day.
"I can't tell you how much MSU has given me," he said. "I want to give back."
Ostrovsky doesn't plan on slowing down any time soon.
"I'm 81, but I'm shooting for 150," he said. "I see people as old as me schlepping around on wheels. Not me. I try to move with the kids. It's all mental attitude. If you think young and act young, you're going to remain young."