Lloyd Spencer Jr. was a senior in 1942 at Westminster High School, where he was unbeatable in the 100-yard dash and was about a credit shy of completing his graduation requirements. But as the United States burrowed deeper into World War II, he found himself wondering what he was doing in a classroom.
"I thought to myself, `There's got to be something more important than this,'" Spencer, 76, recalled. "So I went down and joined the Navy."
FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's editions of The Sun about World War II veterans who will be receiving high school diplomas gave the wrong location for Century High School. The ceremony will be at 3 p.m. Wednesday at the school on Ronsdale Road in Eldersburg.
The Sun regrets the error.
He packed parachutes at age 17 during World War II, served among the original crew members of the USS Franklin D. Roosevelt aircraft carrier and worked as a flight attendant on naval transport planes before retiring 26 years later.
But he never got a high school diploma.
That will change Wednesday when Spencer and nine fellow World War II veterans attend a graduation ceremony at Carroll County's Century High School - the first such ceremony in Maryland.
There will be no caps and gowns. A Naval Academy band will play patriotic songs instead of the traditional "Pomp and Circumstance." And cheering children and grandchildren - rather than proud parents - will fill the rows of the auditorium to congratulate their graduates.
Receiving a diploma some 60 years late, Spencer and the others say, does not diminish its importance.
"It gives you a certain satisfaction, especially at this age," he said. "I'll put it in a frame and look at it, that's for sure."
Carroll is the first county in Maryland to fully take advantage of a bill passed during the legislative session last year that allows local school systems to award full diplomas to World War II veterans who left school early to join the military, state education and veterans affairs officials said. Garrett County recognized two veterans with diplomas last spring at a dinner, but Carroll is the first county to actively search for veterans for a full-blown graduation ceremony.
Among the honorees Wednesday will be a D-Day paratrooper, an Army combat engineer, a Navy damage control officer and a highly decorated Army anti-tank platoon leader who still changes the bandages twice a day on a leg wound he suffered in 1944 during a battle in Germany.
No one knows exactly how many students dropped out or were drafted to fight for their country in World War II. But the effort to recognize those who could be found began in Massachusetts after Robert McKean, director of that state's veterans' memorial cemeteries, attended an informal Memorial Day graduation ceremony in 1998 and vowed to take the idea statewide.
He tagged it Operation Recognition "because everything is called `operation something' in the military," McKean said. "Operation Graduation didn't fit because this is more than just graduation. It's recognition that we wanted to do something for these heroes, for these men who gave up their football games, proms and high school diplomas so we could get ours."
Thirty living and nine deceased World War II veterans were awarded diplomas at Massachusetts' first Operation Recognition ceremony in 1999. More than 8,000 diplomas have since been awarded in the Bay State alone, and 35 other states, including Maryland, have launched similar efforts.
"Some people say that this is not right, that they didn't earn the credits," McKean said. "Let's take a look at what these guys learned: They learned geography firsthand by going to a foreign land. They learned biology when their comrades were wounded. They learned psychology when their buddies died in their arms. And history? They didn't learn history. They made history."
In Carroll County, the suggestion to award diplomas to veterans arose in January at the first school board meeting with two newly elected members.
"These brave men and women made a tremendous sacrifice, and sometimes the lessons grow a little dim with distance," said school board member Thomas G. Hiltz, a graduate of the Naval Academy and a commander with the Naval Reserve who asked Carroll County's school superintendent to look into awarding diplomas to the veterans.
"It's a new world since Sept. 11, and we might begin to appreciate our freedoms more, but to put this in context, these people left their homes and they left their schools to go overseas and fight to protect our freedoms," Hiltz said. "I'm delighted any time we can honor these folks more formally and celebrate their lives and what they did for us."
Turning to Joseph Farinholt
When school officials began the search for veterans who might be eligible for diplomas, they turned to Joseph A. Farinholt.
A former soldier with the Army's 29th Division and a member of almost every veterans group around, the 79-year-old Finksburg man served in France and Germany during World War II. There, as leader of an anti-tank platoon, Farinholt earned four Silver Stars for "gallantry in action" and is being considered for the Medal of Honor, the highest award given for valor in action by the U.S. military.