Paul Masters was only a couple of credits away from graduating Battle Creek Central High School when he got the call to join the U.S. Navy 53 years ago.
“You never know how much not graduating high school goes through your mind,” Masters said.
Battle Creek Public Schools honored the Vietnam War veteran with his high school diploma in a ceremony at the Battle Creek Public Schools Administration Building on Tuesday afternoon.
“We hope you can serve as a model that it is never too late to finish your education,” said Superintendent Kimberly Carter prior to giving Masters his diploma.
Masters was born in raised in Battle Creek. He joined the Navy Reserve in 1965 when he was going into his junior year of high school at Battle Creek Central. A year later, he got the call that sent him on his way to Vietnam.
He said that he enjoyed his time in the military and would recommend it to students who are considering joining after graduation.
“I have nothing negative to say about my time in the military,” Masters said. “It’s a good opportunity that opens a lot of doors.”
He had discussed his deployment with a teacher who made him a promise that he would still receive his degree, but he returned from service two years later to find out that the agreement fell through.
“I was a little blindsided,” he said. “I was expecting to still get it.”
The lack of a high school diploma did not stop Masters from pursuing a college degree. He graduated from Kellogg Community College shortly after returning from the war. He found work at the Grand Trunk Railroad as an engineer. He's lived in Battle Creek ever since.
Even though he had his college degree, the thought of not having a high school degree lingered in his mind.
“You don’t know whether you’re welcome at reunions and things of that nature,” Masters said. “It’s traumatizing in a way.”
Masters was recently having lunch with Kim Kanaga, one of his friends at Battle Creek Central, when he expressed his desire to obtain his diploma. Kanaga reached out to Giles Herb, Battle Creek schools' secretary of student services, to find out if that was a possibility.
In 2001, congress passed Act 181, which allows school boards to award high school diplomas to veterans who didn’t get an opportunity to finish their degrees because of deployment. Masters fell into that category.
“This has been on his mind for a while,” Kanaga said. “He didn’t know how to pursue it right away, but he stayed persistent.”
Herb worked closely with Masters and his family to finish the necessary documentation and set up the ceremony.
Masters was joined by his wife, Lois; Kanaga; Carter; School Board president Karen Evans and other family and friends. Carter presented him with his diploma. Evans gave him his graduation pin.
Masters was given the chance to speak and said he simply wanted to publicly honor his parents, who have since passed away but always wanted him to get his diploma.
“Education was always important to them, and they always supported me financially,” he said. “I thought this would be a good time to honor them.”
He said that the first thing he was going to do after the ceremony was visit his mother’s grave to show her his diploma.
“I’m going to light a candle for my mother and show her what I got,” he said.
Masters said that the emotions he felt were stronger than he had expected.
“Proud doesn’t even touch the words I am feeling right now,” he said.
Herb said that he is looking for more people who attended Battle Creek Public Schools who were in the same situation as Masters.
“Surely there are more out there,” he said. “I want to help every Battle Creek veteran get their diploma that wasn’t afforded the opportunity.”