A diploma decades in the making

HANCOCK – In September 1943, Donald Dodge was sworn into the Army in Marquette, soon to be shipped overseas for the tail end of World War II. One week later, his classmates began their senior year at Hancock Central High School. While he was helping to win the war, they became the Class of ’44.

On Monday, Dodge, who turns 89 Wednesday, finally got his diploma, when Hancock Public Schools Superintendent Monica Healy handed it over in a short ceremony in the district’s board room.

“I can conclusively say I’m the only student who took 70 years to get out of the 12th grade,” Dodge said during the ceremony. “I hope it’s not a comment on my intelligence.”

Healy said the graduation came about through the efforts of Paul Ollila, a friend of Dodge’s and a former Copper Country Intermediate School District superintendent, who’d called her to see if something could be arranged. She said there’s actually a law that can require districts to recognize military training in lieu of school credits, but making sure he graduated was more about honoring his service.

“I just think that someone who didn’t graduate for the reasons he didn’t deserves a graduation,” she said.

Healy said she offered Dodge the chance to graduate with the rest of the class of 2014 on May 24, “but he didn’t want to take away from their day.”

Instead, Monday’s was a small ceremony, with Hancock’s ROTC officers, a few administrators and staff, and the Ollilas.

Paul Ollila downplayed his role in the graduation.

“We were talking about the Army, and I asked if he’d finished up at Hancock,” Ollila said. Dodge said he wasn’t worried about a diploma, but Ollila “thought he wanted it.”

From there, Ollila said, all it took was one call to Healy.

“I’m just happy to see he got it,” Ollila said.

Dodge said his educational saga began before it ever started – he got colitis as a child, and began his school days at C. L. Wright Elementary a year late. Later, he attended the Quincy Hill School, spent 11th grade at Hancock Central High School, then turned 18 and became eligible for military service.

After returning from Europe, he called Hancock’s high school principal to see if his military training made him eligible for graduation, but never heard back.

“She said she’d call back when she wasn’t busy. It took 70 years,” he said, laughing.

Luckily, employers looked on his service more favorably.

“You needed a diploma or the equivalent,” he said. “I guess I had the equivalent.”

Dodge said he was the only one supporting his family at the time, so going back to school wasn’t an option. For 20 years, he worked as a milk man for a local dairy, then became a groundskeeper at Michigan Technological University, where he worked another 20 years before retirement.

In the Army, he said, he learned to appreciate the education he did receive after serving with men who had only grade-school educations.

“I always thought we were fortunate up here to get the education we did get,” he said.

His own sacrifice, he noted, was small compared to that of others.

“The real heroes are the ones under the ground,” he said. “I cry every time I see the crosses.”

Is it on to college from here? Hancock graduates receive free schooling at Finlandia University, which could even give him a chance to revisit his old high school, now part of Finlandia’s campus. Still, Dodge is going to pass for now.

“I think I’ve learned more from the school of hard knocks, let someone else have the spot,” he said. “This is a nice culmination. To get this now after 70 years is icing on the cake.”