World War II veterans receive high school diplomas

Posted: Friday, August 17, 2001

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- Though pomp and circumstance played at Wednesday morning's graduation ceremony, there were no caps or gowns.

There was no raucous music, no catcalls from underclassmen.

The graduates' parents were not beaming on the sidelines, as most of the parents died years ago. Few in the audience even knew the men named on the high school diplomas.

Still, the room filled with pride, poignancy and patriotism when the high school diplomas were awarded to eight World War II veterans or their family members on stage at Lathrop High School.

''It took them 55 years to figure out I know something,'' cracked graduate Arnold De Heus, 74.

The eight blue-jacketed diplomas were given under state legislation, passed earlier this year, that allows World War II veterans who did not graduate from high school and who served between Aug. 7, 1940 and July 5, 1947 to apply to the state to receive a diploma. A ninth man will receive his diploma on Fri-day.

For De Heus, who would have graduated with the class of '45, school ended with two months to go in 11th grade. War was on and he was a young man who wanted to be part of the action.

''I went down and I got in,'' he told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. ''I wanted to be part of making history and I did.''

When his high school friends were graduating, he was in the merchant marine at Okinawa.

Even though he missed out on high school, he said he doesn't regret his military service. He said he learned more there than he could have in high school. ''If I had to do it I would do it all over again.''

Still, living his life without a high school diploma had its disadvantages.

''It made me feel bad every time I had to fill out a job application,'' he said. ''When they look at it they say 'you only went through the 10th grade, you don't know anything.'''

With his graduation, De Heus, a lifelong Alaskan, becomes the third generation in his family to graduate from Lathrop High School -- albeit out of order. His son and grandchild also received their diplomas at the school.

''Next thing, we will want him to get a college degree,'' De Heus' son, Arnie De Heus, said jokingly.

One of the graduates was the father of schools superintendent Jim Holt.

Holt said his father never told the family he didn't have a diploma. When he read about the new law in the paper, he finally told them.

''This was a man that raised six sons with the philosophy 'It's not if you go to college, it's when,''' Holt said of his father. ''And the man didn't even have a high school diploma.''

Each of the men at Wednesday's ceremony had a story.

One always wanted to go to high school, but his family was poor and he worked until the war broke out. He died in 1996, but his wife accepted ''the high school diploma he always wanted.''

Another man's year of ''preparatory conscription'' ended up being a four-year tour in the Army Air Corps.

Bill Keys, 75, said he initially left high school to go to work.

''I was one of those young punks and I left home in '43,'' Keys said. ''I came back in '44 and went ahead and signed up for the Army.''

He said his two grandchildren recently graduated and that he attended both ceremonies. ''This opportunity came up and I said I am not going to let my grandbaby get ahead of me,'' he said of the diploma program.

Keys said his parents would have been proud had they been able to see him. He wished he could have received his diploma earlier. ''It would have opened a lot of doors in those days.''

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