MARQUETTE, Mich. (WLUC/Gray News) - When World War II Veteran John Wapienik told his family he wanted to go back to school and earn his high school diploma, his daughter Tassi Hodgens knew he meant it.
"It’s been something he's wanted to do. He wants all of us his family to know that he was smart enough to stay in school and finish his diploma,” Hodgens asserted.
Born and raised in Munising in 1925, Wapienik had every intention of completing his education at Mather High School. But Uncle Sam had other plans.
He was drafted in 1942 after his 10th grade. So instead of sharpening his pencil for exams, he was sharpening his bayonet in the fight for his life.
Wapienik served in the Army during the Normandy invasion and in the Rhineland. He was wounded twice, earning a Purple Heart, and three Bronze Stars among other decorations.
Representative Jack Bergman, of Michigan's First Congressional District, discussed what it must have been like for Wapienik and his fellow soldiers to have been catapulted into manhood at such a young age.
"They knew that they were fighting for the very existence of the United States of America, not just some battle somewhere to help some other country. Because if we had not won the war, we would not be having this conversation today," Bergman declared.
So when Superintendent Pete Kelto and Congressman Bergman heard Wapienik's story, they knew they had to take action.
Wapienik was presented with his high school diploma Thursday, 77 years after being drafted.
"I would say what he did to serve our country probably exceeded what he would have done in high school. It was a real honor for me, who also graduated from Munising Public Schools, to be able to confer a diploma to a decorated veteran,” Pelto announced.
With their three children, Tassi, JoDee and Jonnie on hand, Wapienik and his wife, Charlotte were completely taken by surprise. The couple has been married 73 years, according to Hodgens. The orchestration took careful planning.
"Both he and my mother were very surprised by it. I didn’t want to tell them about it because I didn’t want them to get nervous. We just wanted his to be able to have that moment and he certainly did and so did my mother,” Hodgens shared.
The diploma will be placed on the mantle alongside the family’s many other happy moments.
"This is the greatest. At this age, to be able to even walk in here and do this is wonderful. We're very blessed. This will be a long conversation for days and days and days and weeks,” Hodgens reckoned.
"You look at how they've lived their lives, both individually and as a couple, and as a family. They are the example of a life well-lived. They smile. They laugh. They're happy. Their glass is more than half full," Bergman concluded.