Jewish World Review Dec. 14, 2001 / 29 Kislev, 5762
You might think this has nothing to do with the news that has been dominating the front pages since Sept. 11.
You'd be wrong.
Leaders of Congress have consistently said they are hopeful there will be no need for a military draft during the war against terror, although the war is expected to be a long one.
John L. Rende, who graduated from Joliet Township High School last Friday night, had hoped to do so a very long time ago.
He is 75 years old. He was supposed to graduate from Joliet Township in the 1940s. But he turned 18 in December of 1943, and within three months he was pulled out of school and sent off to war. It happened to a lot of young men during World War II -- they wanted to finish high school with their classmates, but there was a war to be won, and their country needed them.
Recently, there has been a quiet, lovely movement in the U.S. -- one of the most thoughtful series of events in memory. American high schools -- schools from which young men were drafted during World War II -- are holding graduation exercises, and even proms, for those men who are now entering the final chapters of their lives.
They didn't get to go to graduation back then -- but they are being given the opportunity now. At 6 p.m. Friday, in the auditorium of Joliet Township's central campus, 20 older men wearing caps and gowns will proceed to the stage while the high school's band plays "Pomp and Circumstance." And -- all these years later -- they will be presented with the diplomas they had hoped to be given before World War II and the wartime draft took them away.
"I think this is so wonderful," said Mr. Rende, who will be one of the 20. "We were proud to serve our country, but when you're in high school, there are things that you hate to miss. The senior prom, the big graduation night . . . when my class graduated, I was in the Army, getting ready to go fight in Europe."
He was in the 65th Infantry Division, with Patton's Third Army; he served in France, Germany and Austria. After the war he worked most of his life as a truck loader at a refinery. He never complained about not being able to finish high school, because he believed there was nothing to complain about.
But when he heard that his school was going to allow the boys who were pulled into service to finally and formally graduate. . . .
"This is one of the best gestures anyone has ever made for me," he said. "This is a serious thing to me. I'm going to have my diploma."
It's mostly symbolic -- the men being honored, in Joliet and around the country, are at the stage in their lives where they can't use the diplomas to advance their careers. And many obtained high school equivalency certificates after World War II -- but that wasn't the same as graduating from their old schools, with classmates.
"That's what means so much to these men," said Lynne Lichtenauer, who is organizing the evening. "They don't need the diploma now, but they are happy and proud to be receiving it. It's a piece of their lives that they will now have. The diploma is a visible symbol of our gratitude for what they did."
There will probably be no draft in the war against terror -- that is what Americans are being told. And if that holds true, students who are now in high school will be able to attend their own graduations without being pulled out of classes and sent overseas.
But it was not always so -- which is why on Friday night, the 60th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the school auditorium in Joliet will be filled with family members of the old soldiers. In the 1940s, the parents of the boys would have been in the audience. Friday, it will be those same boys' children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. John Rende, of Joliet Township High School and the United States Army, expects to have 17 family members in attendance.
I have seen part of the graduation speech that Joliet schools Supt. James Clark will deliver. He will say:
"These students have done far more than meet the requirements established by any
state or board of education. In recognition of their bravery and