WWII veteran receives high school diploma 71 years later

CHICAGO -- Veterans are being honored throughout the country over the next few days; one very special ceremony took place at Saint Leo High School Friday where an 89-year-old veteran received a very special honor.

Seventy-one years late, U.S. Navy radioman second class Jim Wilkins got his high school diploma Friday.

It was delayed after Wilkins, like so many others, enlisted in the days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The Chicago Herald Tribune captured his enthusiasm on the very day he ditched school to sign up.

"There were so many men there, all that they wanted to do was get you in and out," Wilkins said.

ABC7's Ravi Baichwal: "So the picture comes in the paper, what happens?"
Wilkins: "My mother saw it... that was it."

Busted, Wilkins bided his time and enlisted in 1943, serving in the Pacific and then later in the Korean War, remembering family tradition that included a great-grandfather who fought in the Civil War. But he longed for that diploma.

The neighborhood that Leo High School serves has changed dramatically over the years. In 1965 they erected a war memorial to highlight the service to country that is a huge value for this school - it is something that has stayed consistent through the generations.

"Anybody who has contributed that much to the country and lived the life that he has, it's our honor to be able to do that," said Dan McGrath, president, Leo Catholic High School.

"I know these men put their lives on the line to make America a better place for us, just watching all of this take place you can just see how much it means to him and the Leo family and community," said Aamir Holmes, a 16-year-old junior.

With his wife by his side, the 89-year-old said the wait was worth it.

"I feel good," he said.

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