Commencements generally are emotional events, but a couple of years ago, Bob McKean attended one in Woburn, Mass., that was more emotional than most -- and inspiring. The graduates were World War II veterans who, more than half a century ago, left high school to fight in the war.
"The guys were in tears, and it brought me to tears," said McKean, director of Massachusetts Veteran Memorial Cemeteries.
Inspired by this graduation, McKean hatched the idea for Operation Recognition. His personal goal, McKean said, is for all World War II veterans, wherever they may be, to receive the high school diplomas "that they gave up willingly for us."
McKean took his idea to Gardner, Mass., schools superintendent Dr. Michael Pregot and the school committee. Operation Recognition was put into action.
The next step was publicity. "We didn't go to the school records and see who didnĻt graduate. It was a privacy issue."
Instead, McKean went to the press, who wrote stories about the program. The program has since been covered CNN, National Public Radio and Chronicle Magazine, as well as Steven Speilberg's DreamWorks.
Once the word got out, McKean said, "veterans began to come forward."
Living History Lessons
On May 20, 1999, Gardner held the first Operation Recognition graduation. Thirty-nine World War II veterans received their long-overdue diplomas.
Among them was Clarence Cormier of Gardner, an Army veteran and former POW who served in the European theatre, including the Battle of the Bulge. Cormier said his granddaughter, who was graduating from Assumption College, brought the program to his attention. Receiving his diploma was "electrifying and gratifying," Cormier said. "It teaches students of today what history is all about."
"This program is a win for veteranís and their families, a win for cities' and towns' school systems, and a big win for students," McKean said.
Prior to an Operation Recognition graduation, high school students spend a semester learning abut the World War II era. "Lotís of guys went into the classroom and gave living history lessons," McKean said.
Graduations include a yearbook for the veterans with a letter from former Sen. Bob Dole, director Steven Speilberg and former President George Bush, along with letters from the students.
For many classes it has spread to more than just the ceremony. Mike Richardís class in Gardner went back to the veterans' old neighborhoods "to get the feel of what it was like to walk in the steps of the vets," he said. In East Hampton, Mass., a senior prom was held the night before graduation for the veterans who never had a chance to enjoy one.
"I think students meet living history," McKean said. "I correlate how the men learned their academic subjects. They learned their geography through going to foreign lands other than through a text. They learned their foreign languages through meeting foreign nationals. They learned mathematics through weapons and projection maps. They learned biology through helping fellow soldiers who had been wounded. They learned psychology when their comrades died in their arms and history -- they didn't learn it, they made it."
Doing The Right Thing
Graduating veterans receive actual diplomas, not honorary ones. Even a veteran who has earned a General Educational Development diploma since leaving high school can still receive a diploma in an Operation Recognition commencement. Widows, children and grandchildren have accepted diplomas awarded posthumously to veterans who died before they could go through the program.
"It didn't take them 50-odd years to get their diplomas," McKean said. "It took us 50-odd years to do the right thing and make sure they got their diplomas."
An estimated 3,500 to 3,600 diplomas already have been awarded in Massachusetts. Since the Operation Recognition's launch there, it has spread to other states.
Anyone interested in the program may write McKean, c/o Massachusetts Department of Veteran's Services, 239 Causeway St., Suite 100, Boston, MA 02114, or call him at (617) 727-3578, ext. 108.
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