A World War II veteran received his high school diploma this month more than seven decades after he left school to join the Navy.
“The only thing I regret is that I never went to 12th grade,” said Leonard Puma, 88, who now lives in McKeesport, Pa. At the time he avoided graduation because he was embarrassed he couldn’t afford a $9 suit for the ceremony.
“He never shared this with anyone,” said his daughter, Lisa Puma, of Alexandria, Va. “It always bothered him that he never received it.”
Puma failed in his first attempt to reach school officials at his old district in Lorain, Ohio, west of Cleveland, but his daughter followed up with the school.
“We got it done pretty fast,” Lorain Schools Superintendent Tom Tucker told The Chronicle Telegram. “The school board signed it, and we sent it out along with an old photograph of the high school.”
Puma is not alone. In Simpson County, Ky., 87-year-old James Dorris also recently received his diploma. Dorris was drafted to fight in WWII prior to his senior year of high school. There’s also Frank Pfenninger in Indiana, Mary Stricklin in Pennsylvania, “J.R.” Blinkenberg in California, and many others around the country who received their diploma decades after leaving high school early.
Simpson County Schools Superintendent Jim Flynn awarded Dorris his belated diploma, saying “We know through their sacrifice and experience, they’re certainly worthy of that high school diploma.”
Many states offer honorary degrees, particularly for veterans. Administered by the states’ Department of Veterans and Military Affairs, candidates must meet certain criteria: They must be 65 or older and have either enlisted or been drafted for service in WWII before graduating high school. They must have been officially enrolled in school prior to joining the military, and performed their military service under honorable conditions. Many states now also award diplomas to veterans from the Korean and Vietnam wars.
Individual school districts also have discretion to award diplomas to non-veterans such as Audrey Crabtree, who was forced to leave school in 1932 due to an injury and to care for her grandmother. The 99-year-old recently received an honorary diploma from her Waterloo, Iowa high school.
Lisa Puma said her father was shocked when his family surprised him with the diploma.
“He thought it was a dead end,” she said. “But he was very humbled and appreciative. Let’s face it, he’s not going to use it to get into college at 88 years old. He just needed to have closure.”