Let’s say you graduated from the University of Minnesota, but didn’t pick up your sheepskin. How long will they hold it?
As Dan Cylkowski of Little Canada found out, the answer is 72 years. At least. He didn’t get his degree when he graduated in 1947, for reasons that might surprise you. Now he’s 94, and he’s finally got proof he’s a Gopher grad.
Let’s back up a few decades. It’s the last push of World War II in the European theater, and Cylkowski’s enlisted. After basic training at Camp Roberts in California, he says, “I landed in Cardiff, Wales, then went across the Channel, to Omaha Beach.”
By which he means Normandy. Not on D-Day, but shortly afterward, joining the long, grueling push to Berlin.
“I was with Patton and the 3rd Army all the way. I was a replacement soldier, field artillery, a cannoneer on the 115 howitzer,” he said. “Our guns weren’t there yet, so we had the German 88s, using their ammo and cannons against them.”
That was the start. Where did he go from there?
“Normandy, Northern France, Ardennes — the Battle of the Bulge — Rhineland, Central Europe.” He got a bronze star for each, and a silver star to indicate the big five battles. He’ll tell you that matter-of-factly, with quiet pride, without any chest-pounding.
“You know, I hear some stories,” Cylkowski said, referring to soldiers with less humility. “You think the guy won the war by himself.”
After the European war was won, Cylkowski found himself in Czechoslovakia. There was the matter of the Pacific theater.
“While we were there, we had orders to go Japan, and [I] thought, ‘Oh, you’re kidding.’ Thank God, I made it through this one, but we’re not going to make it through that.”
The A-bomb made that worry moot. The mortal threat was over. A few months before, he’d been in the worst battles of the 20th century. Now he was in the glee club, whiling away time until demobilization.
“I came back the 5th of January, 1946,” he said.
A fellow tends to remember such dates with precision. What now?
“I was desperately trying to get a job and doing so many crazy things after three years in the service — sax lessons, dancing lessons. I thought, maybe I should try the GI Bill. My brother had also applied, and he graduated from the U in teaching. But they said I’m not a high school graduate, I was a manual arts school graduate. So I had to take a GED test to qualify.”
From the bureaucratic rules of the Army to the bureaucratic rules of the U: welcome home, soldier! But he got in, put in his time, qualified for a degree:
General College, associate of arts. Afterward, he considered becoming an architect.
“A neighbor of mine was an architect, a U of M graduate,” he exclaimed, “and he said, ‘Don’t get into architecture! You won’t like it at all.’ ”
So he worked drafting plans for houses, which meant dealing with people who’d work all day, then call him up at night with requests to change the size of their closet.
It beats getting shelled in a ruined forest, but it still didn’t feel like a route to success.
He worked as a carpenter. Good work, but seasonal. Did some work for Hamm’s Brewery, and that looked like a mighty fine place to work — good benefits and no worries that people will suddenly decide they don’t like beer. He ended up working there for three decades. A steady trade, a solid job.
Just one thing. If anyone had asked if he was a college grad, he couldn’t pull out a piece of paper to prove it.
“The university gave me the invitation for the ceremony,” Cylkowski said of that time long ago. “I had six tickets for friends and family. But they had a stipulation at the time [that], before you could graduate, you had to have a physical.
“Well, I was desperate for a job and I didn’t have much money at all. I couldn’t afford to go to a doctor. I thought, ‘Have them mail it to me.’ Stupid idea. I got a note saying I couldn’t graduate because I couldn’t qualify. Oh jeez. I thought about appealing it, but no, I didn’t qualify for the graduation. Oh, the heck with it.”
Flash forward seven decades.
“In May,” said his granddaughter, Alicia Arellano, “he said he wanted to get his diploma and I thought, of course! He said, ‘Can you help me? You went to the U.’ After a lot of phone calls, we made it happen. He did not have a ceremony. He just got his diploma.”
He’s quite happy to have it. “He is the bedrock of our family,” Alicia says. “He’s definitely the patriarch. Family is super important to him.”
Just as men like him are important to us, to honor and thank. It took a physical to get into the Army and it took a physical to get out of the U. So he didn’t have a doctor’s note? After a lifetime like his, you’d think they’d make an exception.
And so they did.