Some things are more important than a high school diploma.
That’s what Lou Schipper realized back in the 1940s. He was a high school student then, just 17, and he sacrificed a lot for his education.
Schipper lived in Aurora, Indiana, far from St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati. Every morning he walked a full mile from his rural home to the train station. Then he rode into Cincinnati in time for his first class of the day.
Before he could graduate, though, Japanese forces attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor. Schipper was just 17, but he knew he had to do something to help in this epic struggle for freedom. He took his last commute home from St. Xavier and walked into the recruiter’s office. Instead of graduating, Schipper elected to serve his nation.
Schipper shipped out with the United States Naval Construction Forces, nicknamed the Seabees. He served in the Pacific Theater, where he built roads and took care of the war machines that helped save the West from fascism.
The Seabees earned the gratitude of other branches of the military as well as the folks back at home.
“The Marines had a sign on the side of the road that said, ‘When we march into Tokyo, it will be on the road that the Seabees built,” Schipper told news site Cincinnati.com.
After the Allies’ victory over the Axis, Schipper took his discharge from the Navy.
That was in October 1946. He went back home and found work as an electrician.
Schipper never worried about his lack of a high school diploma. The economy was booming. Schipper has a knack for fixing things, and he was always able to find good-paying work.
For fun, Schipper restored Model T cars. He once built an entire bus using wood from trees on his family farm.
Schipper retired in 1984—more time to work on his vehicles. Then, when he was 90 years old, he ran into an old high school friend of his.
George Wood remembered Schipper fondly.
“He was the only freshman in the class who was interviewed with callouses on his hands because that farm boy knew how to do a day’s work,” Wood told Cincinnati.com. “We were comfortable high school kids sitting on our you-know-whats when he was fighting the war over there in the Pacific.”
Wood had heard rumors of a program that awarded high school diplomas to World War II veterans.
He thought of Schipper. Wood contacted the administration at St. Xavier High School, who readily agreed to issue a diploma to this veteran.
Schipper played it cool. His wife, Dottie, said that he acted indifferent to the piece of paper.
He said, ‘What the hell do I need with a diploma,'” she said. “‘I’m 90 years old! Do you want me to get a resume and go to work now?’ He didn’t act like he was really excited, but he was really excited.”
Behind his joking facade, Schipper understood that this diploma symbolized a nation’s gratitude for his service during World War II. He attended a celebration in his honor at the residential facility where he lives. Tony Schad, vice president of advancement at St. Xavier High School, made the trip to deliver the diploma in person.
Schad was almost too overwhelmed to get through his speech.
“Mr. Louis Schipper, on behalf of your classmates from St. Xavier High School, class of 1946, the faculty, staff, and administration, I’m happy to officially welcome you to the long blue line, St. X,” a choked-up Schad said.
Schipper sat dressed in a black graduation robe. He even wore the standard-issue mortarboard hat.
At 90 years old—nearly 70 years after he dropped out of school to fight the good fight—Schipper finally received his diploma. He expressed gratitude to the school and his community.
“I really appreciate it,” Schipper said. “I never thought I’d make it.”
He very nearly didn’t. When he was first deployed in the Pacific, Schipper’s platoon came under enemy fire. He took refuge behind a log on the beach.
“I can still see the log I got behind when I got off the troop carrier,” he said. “I can still see that thing. I think I could draw it. It saved my life.”
Thanks to that log, Schipper returned home to a full, happy life, complete with a high school diploma. He just had to wait a few decades for the honor.