Gerald Johnston never thought he would have a high school diploma.
Caro Community Schools thought otherwise.
At a Monday Caro Community Schools board of education meeting, the 94-year-old Kingston man was presented with an honorary diploma from Caro High School.
“What a thrill it was,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it when I heard about it, especially this late in my life. It was almost unbelievable they would present me with a high school diploma. I thanked them from the bottom of my heart.”
The World War II veteran served in the Army from 1943-46. As part of the 753rd Tank Battalion, Johnston arrived on the shores of Omaha Beach on June 7, 1944, one day after Allied forces landed on the beaches of Normandy, France.
Johnston’s daughter, Annette Sproule, said her grandson, Reese Porter, attends Caro High School, where he and Amy Hammer, a social studies teacher at the school, thought it would be great if Johnston could go to school one day and talk to students about World War II.
“Even though he said he’s tired of talking about the war, I told him to do it one more time,” Sproule said.
Sproule then asked Hammer about her father possibly getting an honorary diploma.
Hammer and Caro High School Principal Stephan Clark decided Johnston absolutely could receive a diploma.
In order to receive the diploma, Sproule had to provide the district with Johnston’s discharge papers, proving he served in the military.
Johnston attended Caro Community Schools through the 10th grade. At that time, he lived in Caro.
“There were five kids in my family and we were poor,” he said. “My parents had a hard time. I left home when I was 14.”
Caro Community Schools Superintendent Peter Newman said legislation was passed after the war for World War II veterans, qualifying them to receive an honorary high school diploma even if they didn’t finish school.
“This guy was at Normandy,” he said. “Honoring somebody from our community who is still alive, and anytime we get an opportunity like this to celebrate somebody, it’s a positive thing.”
Newman called honoring Johnston a community-wide celebratory event.
“We’re happy to have him as another graduate of Caro,” he said.
Sproule’s reaction when she heard her father would receive the diploma, almost 80 years after Johnston would have graduated high school, was of great pride. With Johnston born in 1925, he likely would have graduated in 1943.
“I am so proud of this man and he is so deserving of this,” Sproule said. “It brought tears to my eyes.”
When he was discharged from the Army in January 1946, Johnston said it never crossed his mind to return to school.
“There was too much on my mind after the war and I had seen too much killing. Going to school was the last thing on my mind,” he said.
After Normandy, Johnston took part in the Battle of Hürtgen Forest in the fall of 1944, and participated in campaigns in northern France, the Ardennes Forest, the Rhineland and central Europe.