These days, Caleb Christine has a lot of time to think. Mostly because he spends a lot of time in his car.
He has time to look back and peer ahead, to reflect on his time as a soldier, a police officer, a truck driver and a college drop-out. It’s his time to take stock of the many decisions that led him, at 38 years old with a wife and three kids, to enroll at the University of Northern Iowa and pursue a new career as an industrial technology teacher.
Christine is not your typical college student. He has a son in high school. He’s had several careers. He’s moved across the country, then back again, then back again, again. He’s been a police officer and was among the first soldiers deployed to Iraq. He’s seen dreams fulfilled and goals abandoned, casualties of the unpredictable twists and turns of life.
But there’s one goal he’s coming back to claim. A goal he set in high school 20 years ago. A goal to attend UNI. Now, he’s poised to become the first member of his family to earn a bachelor’s degree, while chasing a new passion - teaching.
His circuitous path to college is a road rarely traveled, although it involves Christine literally traveling over an abundance of roads. Up to three times a week, Christine’s Chevy Silverado 3500 churns through the 162 miles from his family’s doorstep in Seymour, Iowa, seven miles from the Missouri border, to his dorm room in Shull Hall.
On that drive, as the miles melt away and the Marvel movies he listens to to pass the time fade into the background, his mind wanders, leaping back to moments of his past from his time as a police officer. Moments he’d like to forget.
Moments like one night in the Washington woods, where he was the third person to respond to a helicopter crash that left four people dead. He was on scene for 18 hours that day. He helped carry the bodies out of the forest.
Or he’ll think back to the times he responded to a veteran suicide, experiences made even more haunting by Christine’s stint in the U.S. Army.
He can get depressed reliving those experiences, sitting alone in his car, 1,000 miles a week, away from his family and his home. But one thing always brings him back. Right when Hudson Road splits into two lanes and he crosses Highway 20, the UNI-Dome finally comes into view.
“I don't know what it is about that Dome, but I see the Dome, and I'm in a better mood instantly,” Christine said. “I don't think I'll ever know why that is, but it calms me down and puts me back in the right mentality.
“I'm not chasing tail lights on the freeway anymore. I'm not responding to helicopter crashes anymore,” he said. “I'm learning how to use a wood lathe this week. And I'm going to learn a new computer program this week. That drive does a lot to my mind, but that Dome at the end of the tunnel really swings it back to the center.”
‘I was in awe’
To make one thing clear: Christine’s name is pronounced Chris-TINE. Not Chris-TEEN. It was a common mistake growing up. During one baseball game, as “number 18, Caleb Chris-TEEN” came ringing from the bleacher speakers as he approached home plate, he turned, fed up, and shouted up to the announcer the correct pronunciation.
But the small town of Seymour, pop. 700, would come to know his name well. Christine’s parents split up soon after he was born, and until his mom remarried when he was in middle school, almost the whole town had a hand in his upbringing.
“Everybody in town had something to do with me at some point,” Christine said.
He quickly found his footing in athletics, particularly football, where his size (6 feet, 2 inches tall and 275 pounds) made him a big fish in a little pond. But it was on a band trip to UNI during his junior year in high school that Christine first encountered the UNI-Dome.
“I was in awe. I had no idea there was anything like that in Iowa,” he said. “I said ‘That’s where I want to go.’ They had a football team. I loved purple and gold. There was no other school that I really wanted.”
But his performance on the field didn’t match his accomplishments in the classroom. Christine graduated near the bottom of his class and didn’t have the grades to attend UNI. So he enrolled in Iowa Central Community College in August of 1999, with the intent to play football and eventually transfer to UNI. But he only lasted a few days in football and dropped out of college after a year and a half.
He moved back home in the spring of 2001 and started working at the Hy-Vee warehouse. Later that year, in November, he enlisted in the U.S. Army. In January of 2002, he went to basic training at Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri.
He was deployed to Kuwait in March, 2003, and was airlifted into Iraq three days after the start of the Iraq War. There, his main jobs were to escort convoys up main supply routes and train Iraqi police in the cities. He ended up in Mosul, where he met his wife, Stacey, when her unit joined his squad.
The two quickly connected, although life in a war zone meant most of their dates consisted of eating together at the chow hall.
“It was quite an eventful courtship,” Caleb joked. “She’s more than I ever deserve.”
Caleb returned home in February 2004, and in April, just eight months after they met, Caleb and Stacey married. A flurry of activity crisscrossing the country followed in the next three years with stops in New York, Iowa and Washington state. Finally, the couple settled in western Washington after being hired by the Ft. Lewis Police Department.
That was their home for the next 10 years, and Caleb balanced a hectic schedule juggling three jobs - full-time police officer, emergency medical technician for a private ambulance company in the city of Tacoma and security guard at CenturyLink Field for Seattle Seahawks games.
“There were times when I would come home from one shift, take a shower, grab my next uniform, put it on, walk back out the door and catch a nap in the carpool on the way to wherever I was headed next,” Caleb said.
Through all of this, Caleb assumed his college days were behind him, that his dream of attending UNI would go unfulfilled.
But it’s never too late.
The road back to UNI
In 2017, the Christines moved back to Iowa again, returning to Caleb’s hometown of Seymour that June. Caleb knew he could no longer be a police officer - the physical and emotional toll was too great.
“Unfortunately, things happened over the years. Physically, I couldn't do that anymore,” Caleb said. “I went to some absolutely haunting calls that I never wanted to go to. I never wanted to leave that job. But I couldn't do it anymore.”
So, he started working in a lumber yard before deciding to enroll in the building trades program at Indian Hills Community College.
There, he found his calling.
It happened when one of his classes helped Habitat for Humanity build a house in Oskaloosa. A group of high school students was also on site, and it was Caleb’s job to teach them the particulars of home construction.
“I would take these students and basically just show them ‘this is how you build a wall.’ And then I handed them a nail gun and held the board for them, and then they built a wall,” Caleb said. “And at the end of that three days, we were all sitting around and my professor said ‘you know, of all the people in the program, I think Caleb's probably got the aptitude to go on and teach.’ And it was right then I realized, you know, what I maybe I should try doing this.”
When he graduated Indian Hills in 2019 with a Building Trades diploma and an Associate of Arts degree, he knew what career he wanted to pursue - industrial technology teacher. There were only two universities in the state that offered the program, and one was UNI.
After talking it through with his family, he enrolled in UNI in the fall of 2019 with a double major in technology and engineering education and middle level education. It was a surreal, full-circle moment.
“I thought forever it was done, that my dream of UNI was not going to happen,” Caleb said. “I always wanted to have my degree, for no other reason than it was a mission I set for myself 20 years ago. It was something I always had at the back of my mind, but I never dreamt that UNI was where I would end up.”
“I am the student”
It’s fair to say that Caleb sticks out on campus. It was something he anticipated and embraced.
On moving day, he had a T-shirt made that said “I am the student,” figuring that most people would assume he was a parent moving his child into the dorms. It worked, for the most part.
He said he would get some weird looks in his dorm at first, but people are mostly used to him now. Vestiges of his old life still crop up on campus. At times, he thinks of the dorm as his barrack or the Piazza dining center as the chow hall.
And he’s hammered down a routine for juggling his campus and home lives. He’ll head down to Seymour up to three times a week, and always on the weekends. He’ll catch his sons’ basketball or football games or their Christmas performances.
On the days he can’t make it down, he’ll video chat with his family, helping his children with homework or just catching up on their day. Being away from his family is hard, but he and Stacey agreed it was for the best - a short-term sacrifice for a long-term goal.
“It did concern him that he would be gone, because he knew it would be an issue for the family,” Stacey said. “And that’s why he’s trying to put that emphasis on calling to talk to the boys. I'll call in the morning before they go to school and then he'll call in the evening.”
After graduation, Caleb plans to return to Seymour and find a teaching job in the area. The children gave Caleb and Stacey one message loud and clear: They want to stay in Seymour. So, even if it means a 70 mile commute for Caleb, the family will stay in Seymour.
And, after it all, he hopes his children can learn from his journey back to UNI.
“I hope they realize that no matter whether you stumble, no matter whether things change in life, it’s never too late to make the change you want,” Caleb said. “If you decided at almost 40 you want to go back to school to be an electrician, then do it. Just don't give up. That's the biggest thing I hope my kids will take away from this. Just don't give up. Ever.”