Bill would honor WWII and Korean veterans with diplomas

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 18, 2001

AP and staff reports

JACKSON – Albert Berryhill of Pontotoc never got to walk across a stage to accept a high school diploma as a teenager. He enjoyed quite a graduation ceremony in 1999, though, as he and 65 other World War II veterans who never finished high school were given honorary diplomas from Pontotoc city or county schools. Festivities included patriotic music, handshakes from Miss America and salutes to one of the largest American flags most folks have seen.

”I thought it was a nice thing for them to do, but they should have done it a long time before,” Berryhill, 79, said last week.

Mississippi legislators are trying to ensure that veterans all over the state have a chance for the same kind of recognition Berryhill and others have received in Pontotoc County the last couple of years.

A bill pending in a House-Senate conference committee would allow high schools to give honorary diplomas to World War II and Korean War veterans who never had a chance to graduate. Sponsors say the effort is an important way to honor aging vets.

Rep. Pat Montgomery, D-Pontotoc, says school districts could provide the honorary diplomas without legislative permission.

He thinks passing a law would remove any doubt that districts have that authority, and it might encourage schools across the state to recognize people who defended their country in times of need. ”It’s something we have not shown the veterans enough, that we appreciate them,” Montgomery said.

Yvonne Robbins, veterans services officer for the City of Natchez, said such efforts to honor veterans are not new. &uot;I think it’s a marvelous idea,&uot; said Robbins, who said her late husband, a Michigan native and World War II veteran, was lucky enough to have been given his diploma before he and other soldiers left for the war.

Robbins said she believes some members of the &uot;Fighting Five&uot; – Natchez area residents who attended school during the war years – would qualify for honorary diplomas, but records are difficult to find.

A program called ”Operation Recognition” was started in Massachusetts to give World War II veterans their honorary diplomas. The first group of veterans received theirs in 1999.

Operation Recognition founder Robert McKean, director of veterans memorial cemeteries for Massachusetts, said he wanted a way to honor those who sacrificed their safety – and in some cases their lives – for their country.

”These are people who went from carrying textbooks to carrying weapons for our freedom,” McKean said.

He pushed the idea first to local school boards across Massachusetts. He said some officials were skeptical about giving honorary diplomas to people who never earned enough academic credits to graduate.

”I told them (veterans) learned their geography first hand, by traveling around the world. They learned their biology by tending to wounded comrades,” McKean said. ”They didn’t learn history; they made history.”

McKean has traveled across the country to promote Operation Recognition. So far, about 30 states have started honorary diploma programs, either through laws or through local efforts such as those in Pontotoc County.

The American Legion and other veterans groups support the effort.

Bob Ledford of Hattiesburg, a World War II veteran who earned a Purple Heart, said young men were eager to enroll in the military, especially after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The tug of patriotism was strong enough to pull many out of high school.

”A lot of boys 16 and 17 years old – they quit school to get in the service,” said Ledford, 76. ”Plus, this was the Depression. You went in the service and you got two pair of shoes and some underwear.”

Alvin Loudermilk of Laurel said he dropped out of high school in Atlanta to work in the Civilian Conservation Corps, a Depression-era public works program that provided much-needed income for many families.

Loudermilk enrolled in the military in early 1941 and stayed in until 1964, earning a Purple Heart. He said he earned his high school equivalency diploma in Texas in the 1950s.

He expressed some skepticism about giving honorary diplomas to veterans late in life.

”Would it mean it has any validity or any merit because it was bestowed rather than earned?” said Loudermilk, 79.

The most recent statistics available from the state Veterans Affairs board showed Mississippi had about 54,700 World War II veterans and about 32,400 Korean War veterans in July 1999.

Sponsors of the pending legislation say they don’t know how many vets might be eligible for honorary diplomas.

One of the sponsors, Sen. Tom King, R-Hattiesburg, said the proposal is limited to World War II and Korean War veterans because young people in those wars were more likely to have their education cut short by military service than people of later generations. King is a Vietnam War veteran.

McKean said states use a variety of methods to contact veterans who might be eligible for honorary diplomas. Relatives often encourage their fathers or grandfathers to apply.

Harding Mason of Gardner, Mass., received his honorary diploma in 1999. He said he had watched his 11 daughters and four sons graduate over the years and he always wondered why he hadn’t gotten his diploma.

”It was very important to me,” Mason said last week. ”It felt so good.”

King said it’s important for Mississippi to honor its veterans.

”For what they’ve done and for the efforts they’ve made,” King said, ”it’s the least we could do.”

The bill is House Bill 396.