After 69-year delay, veteran gets diploma

  • Article by: EMILY JOHNS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 18, 2009 - 11:45 PM

The Pearl Harbor survivor said the diploma "was something I was never going to get."

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Former Humboldt High School student Richard Thill, 85, held an honorary diploma awarded to him Wednesday at the St. Paul school.

Photo: Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

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Richard Thill both left and returned to St. Paul's Humboldt Senior High School under false pretenses. ¶ The 85-year-old World War II veteran lied about his age to sign up for the Naval Reserve in 1940 at age 16. ¶ Almost 70 years later, Thill returned to the school Wednesday supposedly to tell a student assembly about his experiences. That's when the second lie was revealed: He had been lured there to be awarded an honorary diploma. ¶ It was dated June 8, 1942.

"Thank God for that," he said slowly, gripping the diploma with his weathered hands. "I really love this. This is something I really treasure."

The 200 students at the assembly, who have lived in a country at war since grade school, gave him a standing ovation.

"That's just marvelous," Thill said. The diploma "was something I was never going to get."

The way Thill tells it, his high school career ended because of a sailor's white hat.

A family friend was in the Naval Reserve in St. Paul. He had a really cool white hat, and Thill asked him for it.

The reservist said no, but added, "If you join, you can get a whole uniform.' "

Thill's father signed a paper saying his son was 17, old enough to sign up.

Which led to Thill's first piece of wisdom for current Humboldt students; "Never lie. You'll get caught in a lie. Never lie."

Then a sly smile crept across his face.

"Unless you have to."

Thill was called to active duty in January 1941 and sent to Hawaii.

"All I knew about Hawaii was that people lived in huts and all the girls wore grass skirts," he said, "so I was anxious to get there."

Stationed on the destroyer USS Ward, Thill was part of the crew that fired the first U.S. shot in World War II, sinking a small, two-man Japanese submarine trying to sneak into the entrance to Pearl Harbor early in the morning of Dec. 7, 1941.

"Then," he said, "there was chaos."

Thill returned to St. Paul after more than five years in the Navy. At 21, without a diploma, he was able to pass an entrance exam and enroll at St. John's University in St. Joseph.

But he dropped out three semesters later, and took at job at Northern States Power Co., working as a lineman for more than 30 years.

The idea to grant Thill an honorary diploma came from Larry Ryan, commander of the North Saint Paul American Legion Post 39, where Thill is a member.

Principal Mike Sodomka agreed.

"It was really a no-brainer," he said Wednesday. "He's an American hero, and a Humboldt hero."

Thill's is only the third honorary diploma to be granted by the St. Paul Public Schools, Sodomka said.

It looks exactly like the diploma that will be awarded to this year's graduating seniors: Only the word "honorary" was added.

School board member Tom Conlon, who served four years in the Marine Corps, helped grant the diploma.

Conlon said Humboldt's students -- a diverse group comprised of many from low-income homes, some with roots in Somalia, Vietnam, Mexico and places far from the world Thill has inhabited -- would benefit from his story.

"I just thought it was important we help the future generations connect with the school's past," Conlon said.

Before the assembly ended, Thill had one more piece of advice to share with the students: "It's your job to learn everything you can learn, because it will help you through your entire life," he said. "This just goes to show that sometimes, it takes a little longer."

Emily Johns • 612-673-7460

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