71 Years Later, a Well-Deserved Diploma for WWII Veteran

Click the above photo of Paul Young waiting to receive his diploma to see more photographs from today’s event at North High School.

These days a lot of emphasis is put on community service as a line item on the resumes of graduating high school seniors. It looks good to college recruiters and admissions officers. But that’s not what Vernon “Paul” Young had on his mind when he left North High School in the middle of his senior year.

On December 8, 1941, the day after the “date that will live in infamy,” Mr. Young enlisted in the United States Navy because his country had been attacked. Though he survived WWII he never made it back to North. Until this morning, when he received his honorary diploma, 71 years later, at the age of 88.

Paul brought his own camera with him today, and was snapping pictures throughout the festivities from the time four Junior ROTC cadets presented the colors and the crowd stood to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. But he was the subject of lots more photos than he took. Without ever attending a class with any of them, Paul Young graduates at last as the most popular of his classmates, at least for his too long-awaited moment this morning.

Also honored with a memorial plaque was Mr. Young’s older brother, Marion, a star athlete at North who graduated in 1939. Marion, too, enlisted after the attack on Pearl Harbor and was killed in action in 1944.

Paul Young never let his lack of a high school diploma stand in his way. After the war he was accepted by the University of Wisconsin in 1946 on the basis of equivalency criteria, and he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1950 before going on to a career in the field of water treatment. But a loose end dangled back in his hometown and “in the back of my mind,” he said. He mentioned it recently to a second cousin who still lives in this area and is acquainted with members of the North administration. One thing finally led to another and Paul was attached to North’s Class of 2013 for this morning’s Class Day ceremonies.

He arrived early, appropriately and smartly decked out in a pink shirt and a green sport coat, the school colors when he was a Polar Bear and the campus was still located at 8th and College. North’s current home wasn’t built until 1957. After 71 years, an extremely overdue diploma was within reach. But first he had to don his cap and gown, the uniform he once declined in favor of a sailor’s, and sit patiently in the wings while various awards, including some for citizenship, and scholarships totaling more than $2.7 million were doled out to his new classmates. All of them were deservedly acknowledged with polite applause. But when Major Sean Quinlan, the Commandant of North’s Junior ROTC corps, took the podium and introduced Mr. Young, an immediate and prolonged standing ovation reverberated through the gym. The most senior of the seniors lost his cap when his son, Dan, a newspaper photographer from Wisconsin, embraced him in a poignant reversal of roles. But the old sailor who was one of the first to step forward more than seven decades ago had the medal he’d long sought still draped around his neck; the one that identifies him as a graduate of Des Moines North High School.

Technically he’s been a dropout despite also being a college grad. But today he was recognized as a hero, one who got lost in the shuffle of time and one of a pair of brothers North can now and forever proudly claim as alums. Mr. Young waved to the crowd but did not speak. The look on his face said it all.

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