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Commentary: A long-awaited diploma arrives

On Oct. 23, 2000, Fred Branham got his high school diploma. "So what?" you're probably asking. Well, what's interesting about the story is not so much the month and day -- although a Monday in October is not exactly traditional -- but the year. B...

On Oct. 23, 2000, Fred Branham got his high school diploma.
"So what?" you're probably asking. Well, what's interesting about the story is not so much the month and day -- although a Monday in October is not exactly traditional -- but the year.
Branham is more than 70 years old and received his diploma in the presence of wife, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren -- four generations of his family -- alongside several other World War II veterans and widows of veterans in the Cloquet area.
Oh, and one other thing you may find unique: Branham got this diploma 29 years after graduating from college.
As one of the grandchildren, I am surely biased, but I think it was a pretty nice day, even counting the jokes about getting a job and finally laying a mother-in-law's low expectations to rest.
My grandfather dropped out of school at age 18 to fight in World War II. He saw combat in France and Germany, working to liberate those areas from Nazi control. I know from the stories he has told me that the toll was great, as it was for many men of his generation.
When he returned home, he went to work, a company man at Potlatch in Cloquet until his retirement. He supported a wife and two kids, including my mother. He never went back to high school.
As he admits, he wasn't a good student in his younger days.
But that changed somewhere along the line. My grandfather went to college, starting in the University of Minnesota-Duluth's Extension Service in 1966. He graduated from UMD in 1971 with a bachelor's degree in social sciences. All the while, he held down a full-time job.
My grandfather loved higher education. If you press him, he'll tell stories of arguments with professors, demonstrating a passion and a penchant for speaking his mind, traits that for better and worse seem to have been passed to many of his descendants (present company included).
And all through his college career, the only time he was asked about a high school graduation was during registration for student teaching. One of his professors standing nearby informed the questioner that Fred would be graduating soon with good grades and that the high school wasn't all that important.
It turns out that the professor was only partially right. It didn't matter for his academic success, but it mattered personally, as my grandfather discovered yesterday.
By most any measure, Fred Branham is a successful man. He has 12 great-grandchildren with three on the way, 10 grandchildren, a son and daughter, a marriage of more than 50 years to my grandmother Dorothy. He had a solid career that made him a good living and a good retirement. He has a college degree and has traveled all over Europe and North America.
In his retirement he has taken up painting and music, has built friendships far and wide, with people young and old. He has been an active member of his church and community for most of his life.
In light of all that, I asked him if the high school diploma meant anything to him.
"It does mean a great deal to me," he said. "It's strange. I didn't think it would."
He said it was like a piece of the puzzle had fallen into place.
"We never had normal teen-age things that people used to," he added.
And I guess that's a point that's easy to miss for someone like me, who's only known him as Grandpa Fred: the man who, with my grandmother, carved a golf course from the woods in Mahtowa, who took me to take my drivers' test, who helped teach me to shave on a family vacation to the Grand Tetons.
It's easy to overlook the Depression that marked his coming of age, and that of his whole generation. It's easy to forget the tough decisions that had to be made by his generation in the terrifying and tumultuous times following World War II, adapting in a time of tremendous change.
It's easiest of all to overlook a lost childhood.
For all those reasons, I'm very pleased that my grandfather and his "classmates" got their diplomas yesterday. I'm glad that piece of his life has been put right.
And, pacifist that I am, I thank my grandfather for following his conscience and doing what he believed was right to make the world better for me and my generation, and for teaching me to do the same.
NEWS TO USE
Communities across the state are looking for ways to honor World War II veterans who sacrificed their education to serve in the military. If you are a veteran or know a veteran who may be interested in the program, contact the Minnesota Department of Children, Families and Learning's Scotty Campbell in Veterans' Affairs at (651) 297-4932 or a veterans affairs officer in your county. More information and an application are available on the Internet at http://www.state.mn.us/ebranch/mdva/hsdploma.html .
Kyle Eller is a reporter and columnist for the Budgeteer News. Reach him at 723-1207 or via e-mail at kyle.eller@duluth.com .

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