Grateful 79-Year-Old Finally Gets His High School Diploma
By Ryan McDonald, Church News staff writer
Just before another crop of graduates received diplomas at Bonneville High School in Idaho Falls, Idaho, on May 23, a man from an earlier generation obtained his.
It was a moment far too long in the making.
In January 1952, Ken Thomas of the Iona 2nd Ward, Iona Idaho Stake, was just months shy of graduating from high school. Though he was enjoying his senior year, he joined the Marines, as the United States was in the midst of the Korean War. In the ensuing months, he fulfilled the necessary requirements to receive his GED while in military training. He spent more than 13 months in Korea and returned home on Christmas Eve of 1953. He married Carmen Jacobsen in November of 1954 and began attending Ricks College in Rexburg, Idaho. When the couple started to have children, Brother Thomas left school so he could better support his young family. His plan was to one day return to the classroom.
Last winter, Brother Thomas and his daughter Doreen Sorensen began talking about life’s regrets. Brother Thomas said two things he would do if he had another chance were to serve a mission and graduate from high school.
His daughter knew she couldn’t do anything to help him serve a mission, but she had been feeling guilty about not working to get him an honorary diploma, a common practice employed for veterans who didn’t finish high school because they joined the armed services.
What happened over the next few weeks was certainly unexpected. Sister Sorensen got in contact with Bonneville High School registrar Janet Richan, who suggested first that Brother Thomas’s high school records be found. This was a difficult task, as files from that far back were disorganized. After spending a number of hours spanned over a few days searching through archives, she located Brother Thomas’s high school transcript file.
“If you can find something to help them out and bring completion to their life, it’s important to me,” she said.
“The regret that he had, it really broke my heart. It made me feel bad that he regretted doing what he did, and yet [joining the military] was an important thing at that time too.”
Upon reviewing Brother Thomas’s file, she discovered a letter from the Marines to Bonneville High indicating that Brother Thomas had fulfilled the requirements necessary to graduate. The high school, the letter said, was to issue him a diploma.
The request slipped through the cracks, however, as Bonneville High was in the midst of bringing in students from neighboring schools that were going to be shut down.
Meanwhile, Brother and Sister Thomas went on to raise seven children. Brother Thomas worked as a carpenter and also spent many years in the National Guard to supplement his income. He represented the United States in the Vietnam War.
“We struggled a little bit [financially],” he said.
Not one with a preference for sitting in an office, Brother Thomas doesn’t think he would have struck it rich by any means had he received his high school diploma, but his daughter Doreen feels his life would have been much different.
“He was turned down from jobs because he didn’t have his diploma; he just had the GED,” Sister Sorensen said. “I know [during our childhood] we were almost forbidden, scolded if we ever even thought about not graduating. That was never something that we were even allowed to think about. … A high school diploma was very important to him, for his kids to do better than he did.”
All seven of Brother and Sister Thomas’s children went on to graduate from high school and attend at least some college.
Upon hearing of the 61-year-old mix-up with Brother Thomas’s diploma, Bonneville High principal John Pymm came up with a plan. In March, many of Brother Thomas’s family members gathered at his home without warning. The principal entered a short time later.
“I didn’t know him from Adam,” Brother Thomas said.
Upon entering the home, the principal broke the news to Brother Thomas that he had in fact graduated from high school more than 60 years previous. Self-described as an emotional person, Brother Thomas began to cry. The principal asked Brother Thomas if he would like to receive his diploma at Bonneville’s 2013 graduation exercises.
“I was kind of shocked and surprised and happy,” Brother Thomas recalled. “[The diploma] is there. They’re gonna get it to me finally.”
That “finally” occurred on May 23, as more than 60 family members celebrated the long-overdue event with Brother Thomas. Absent was his granddaughter Danae, who was going through her own graduation from Madison High School in Rexburg.
“He’s been wanting this for so long. … To have it be on the same day as me, for me at least, it makes it extra special,” she said. “Who can say they can graduate with their grandpa? … I kind of realized that it’s hard to go throughout life without a high school diploma. For the people who can get them, they take it for granted. I don’t think they realize how important it is because it just kind of flies by. It’s taught me the past few months that it’s definitely a privilege to have it.”
The school’s principal said that’s the lesson he hopes sinks into the minds of those who graduated with Brother Thomas.
“I think our senior class has already been affected pretty significantly,” he said. “They [were] really excited to share the stage with somebody that they all consider to be an American hero for his willingness to serve and sacrifice. I do think it’s going to have a tremendous impact on our students.”
In the end, Brother Thomas hopes it does too.
“I know how important it is to get an education. … It’s just better all the way around if you’ve got a diploma,” he said. “I hope that maybe some of these kids thinking about dropping out of school, I hope that maybe my example will change their mind and they’ll stay in school.”