World War II veteran receives diploma

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A random good deed by McKees Rocks native Clifford T. Fairbanks Jr. has gotten him his high school diploma 67 years later.

During an October visit with family friends, Mr. Fairbanks and his wife Barbara of Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., delivered a 1925 McKees Rocks High School yearbook to the Sto-Rox School District.

The yearbook had belonged to his uncle, William Nicholson, who had died in 1944 while serving in the Army during World War II's Battle of the Bulge.

While meeting with Sto-Rox superintendent Michael Panza about the yearbook, he recounted that he had dropped out of high school prior to his 1945 graduation so that he could enlist in the U.S. Navy.

This revelation got Mr. Panza's wheels turning and he set into motion the process of obtaining an honorary diploma for Mr. Fairbanks through the Operation Recognition program, which authorizes school districts to grant a high school diploma to any honorably discharged veteran who served in the U.S. military during World War II, the Korean conflict or the Vietnam War.

Mr. Panza and the school board moved quickly to present an honorary diploma over the phone Nov. 15 to Mr. Fairbanks. He received in the mail a diploma, various citations and a cap with a tassel.

"I hoped. I worried. It was a long time coming and everyone was pulling for me," said Mr. Fairbanks, 85, who admits to "showing off" his diploma to anyone that wants to see it.

"He was so tickled," said Mrs. Fairbanks.

Although he admits remorse over not earning his diploma sooner, he does not regret leaving school to serve in the military. He made many friends in the service and still keeps up with them. Earlier this year, the couple attended a reunion with his shipmates in Baltimore and plans are in the works to attend another reunion next year in Seattle.

Mr. Fairbanks said he had tried to alter his birth certificate and childhood medical records to allow him to enlist before his 18th birthday. He "did a very shabby job of it" because his mother, Margaret (Nicholson) Fairbanks, had beautiful handwriting that was hard to copy. He said she "dragged her feet all she could" when it came to his enlistment.

Once he turned 18, she was no longer able to stop him. He was stationed in Hawaii and served aboard the U.S.S. Passumpsic until 1947 when he returned to McKees Rocks and began building water towers at Pittsburgh-Des Moines Steel Co. on Neville Island with his father, Clifford.

It wasn't long thereafter that the whole family decided to pull up stakes and move to California with hopes of improving his mother's health in the warmer climate.

There he became a sheet metal worker and earned his private pilot's license. He rarely mentioned he had not graduated from high school and made sure both his daughters were unaware until after they had earned their diplomas.

"I didn't want to give them an excuse," he said. "I don't think it held me back, but I always regretted it."

neigh_west

Sonja Reis, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.


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