Worries about $9 for clothes kept a longtime Pittsburgh labor leader and World War II veteran from getting his Ohio high school diploma until this fall.
For more than seven decades Leo Puma, 88, told no one in his family that he had left school in Lorain, west of Cleveland, without graduating. He had joined the Navy at age 17 -- before going on to become a leader with Ironworkers Local 3 and the Pittsburgh Building & Construction Trades Council -- partially because the 11th-grader did not want his struggling family to pay for the clothes he needed for the graduation ceremony.
"I was too embarrassed to graduate with the 12th-graders. We didn't have nothing. I didn't want to burden my family with the $9 for a suit and tie and all that," the McKeesport man said Monday.
Mr. Puma was a Navy machinist for four years and participated in the invasion of Okinawa in April through June 1945. When he returned to the United States, he went to work for American Bridge Co., and rose to the leadership of his Ironworkers local for three terms in the 1970s-80s before becoming business manager of the building trades council in the 1980s. He retired in 1990 after leading local union efforts to build the $1 billion Pittsburgh International Airport, which broke ground in 1987.
He also worked as a McKeesport constable for a few years, while his lack of a diploma nagged him. After seeing a news story about a fellow vet who got his decades later, he called a friend in the McKeesport district for help with his old school in Ohio. When that did not work his daughter tried the district and succeeded -- like other school boards around the country, it often presents diplomas to those who could not complete coursework due to military service.
Mr. Puma's family surprised him with the diploma last weekend.
"Here he was, a labor union leader, and he never shared this with anyone," his daughter, Lisa Puma of Alexandria, Va., told the Chronicle-Telegram of Elyria, Ohio. "It always bothered him that he never received it."
In the meantime, he said, McKeesport Area High School also gave him a diploma. "They went ahead and printed one up. Anyhow, now I have two," he said.
Mr. Puma said he prays every day for those who died in the war, including a brother who died on Guadalcanal Island as a Marine. While happy to have his high school diploma, he does not regret joining the Navy and leaving home instead -- in fact, he thinks others would benefit from the experience.
"I would never trade those four years for anything. They taught me wash my clothes, sew buttons and be self-dependent. I sincerely believe everybody, when they get out of school, should have a year or a year and a half in any service of their choice."
Tim McNulty: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1581. First Published October 1, 2013 4:00 AM