I was wondering what I might do to honor veterans today, and that led me to remember Robert. I'd like to share his story.
In the fall of 2004 Robert Mathews and his wife contacted me at Milwaukie High School, back when I was an Assistant Principal there. They wanted to know if he could get his high school diploma. Like so many other teenage boys in the early 1950’s, Robert had left school before graduating, and entered into military service. Their older brothers and uncles had served in WWII, and a sense of duty and honor remained strong well after that war had ended. Fifty years later, after he’d returned from service in the Navy during the Korean War, Robert finally came back to high school. With his wife there by his side, he came in to my office to see if he could take care of some unfinished business.
I was suddenly in the middle of a profound moment. I realized what it must have taken for Robert to come back to the high school he had left so long ago, to be this vulnerable, and to say, “I need closure.” I got the feeling that this was something he'd kept secret for a long time, and perhaps felt some embarrassment that he had never become a high school graduate. His request came across with such sincerity and respect, even though he could have just come in and demanded his diploma from me. It was a weighty moment. Simply by the manner in which he approached me, he had intentionally placed me in a position of authority to make a determination, as if he would accept my decision as final. I knew I had to step up and be this man’s vice principal. I’ll never forget that feeling.
Robert made some sort of crack about his grades in high school, and how the Dean of the school thought the military might be a better option for him. True or not, just watching him smile and tell the story brought some lightness to the moment. After the Korean Conflict was over, Robert came back home and built a life together with his wife and children. He worked hard running a successful small business and recently retired. He put his family’s needs ahead of his own education for his whole adult life, and now it was finally time to do something about that.
Oregon lawmakers passed a law that directs high schools to confer diplomas to veterans who stepped away from high school for wartime service, and who were honorably discharged. A quick review of Robert’s school transcript and the discharge papers Mrs. Mathews had in her hands, it was clear: Robert was going to get a diploma. The smiles were accompanied with glistening eyes, no words needed.
It would take a bit of time for us to prepare the diploma, and we had hoped to have a little ceremony of sorts at the school. They both agreed to that, and said they would contact me with some possible dates so that family could attend. Robert was having some tests and a possible surgery later on, and they decided to wait until his health was a little better.
In mid-December I got another call from Mrs. Mathews, who said she didn’t think Robert was going to be getting any better. His health was failing now, and he had become housebound. There was some urgency in getting the diploma to Robert soon, and since coming down to the school wasn’t going to be an option, she wondered if we could just mail his diploma to him. That didn’t feel right to me. I asked if I could visit the house and present it to him. She didn’t want me to have to go to all that trouble, but I insisted that mailing it was too impersonal, so she said that I could come in person. Then I asked if the school’s choir could come and sing for Robert. I knew in advance that there was a day they'd be out performing in the community, so I was hoping it would work. She agreed the choir could sing, but was worried they might not all fit in the living room. We decided they could sing from the driveway, and Robert could listen from the front porch.
On the last school day in December, we came to the house and were greeted by some of the neighbors who had taken time off from work for this. They wanted to let us know how special this was for them; they wanted to see Robert graduate. They were so proud of him! We rang the doorbell, the door opened, and Robert and his wife appeared together. Robert was hooked up to his oxygen and relying on his walker to stand. Though smaller and weaker now, he had prepared all day for this moment.
The kids in the choir understood what they were witnessing, and in their semi-circle formation in the driveway they sang some holiday favorites beautifully. The neighbors all clapped, and then we got down to business.
I’d practiced in the car on the way there. It was my first-ever graduation speech: “On behalf of the school district and Milwaukie High School, we are proud to confer this diploma to Robert, who has earned it through a combination of successful academic course work and life experiences, on this day of December 17, 2004.”
After the customary applause and pictures, Robert held up his diploma, and his voice broke with emotion as he said, “This completes my life.”
Those words took the breath right out of me. I was glad for the noise of the cheering and applause from everybody else at that moment, because it covered up the loud, uncontrollable sob that came up and out of my throat. Tears streaming hot down my face, this experienced pierced my heart as an educator. In a small way, I had done something to honor this veteran, something he had waited for for a long time. This was such a privilege.
Mrs. Mathews timed Robert's graduation well; his health continued to worsen and he passed away a month later.
Every graduation is special, and we celebrate every graduate’s unique set of accomplishments. I’m just so glad Robert got to finally enjoy that feeling.
Happy Veterans Day, Everybody!