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97-year-old World War II veteran receives high school diploma

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A high school graduation held off for nearly eight decades took place Monday in the living room of a 97-year-old World War II veteran and Watertown native.

“I’m amazed ... I never in God’s world expected to be getting this,” said Frederick L. Gray. “I’m just dumbfounded by the thoughtfulness.”

To make the diploma presentation, administrators from Watertown High School and the Watertown City School District came to Mr. Gray’s Sherman Street home, along with this year’s graduating valedictorian and salutatorian.

“I don’t have honors like this very often,” Superintendent Terry N. Fralick said. “I’ll remember this for the rest of my life.

Mr. Gray, listed as a member of the class of 1934, dropped out before graduating to join the Civilian Conservation Corps to support his mother, who raised him and his two brothers, Robert W. and James S., after their father died of complications of diabetes.

After serving in the corps for two years, Mr. Gray returned home and worked at New York Air Brake in a few different positions until he was drafted into the Army in February 1942. Mr. Gray served with the 19th Infantry Regiment, 24th Infantry Division, for three years in the Pacific, including Hawaii, Australia and the Philippines, earning a Bronze Star with an Oak Leaf Cluster during his time in uniform.

Though he had few memories about his time in school, he remembered, with the help of his niece, Deanna J. Shepard, many details about his time in uniform, showing off a row of photos he took during the war with a Foth Derby camera he received from New York Air Brake after he was drafted.

Among the photos on his mantle were images of him holding a koala bear in Australia and posing with Filipinos on the island of Mindanao, and a view of Diamond Head, Hawaii, with a beach in the picture lined with barbed wire.

After his time in the Army, Mr. Gray returned to his job at New York Air Brake, where he worked for many years until he retired as head of the company’s billing department.

The planning for Monday’s presentation started a few months ago when Joseph A. Caronia, a friend and neighbor of Mr. Gray, came across an invitation Mr. Gray received from the school to attend its graduation ceremony in 2001. He had simply put it aside.

Contacting Leslie E. Atkinson, incoming high school principal, Mr. Caronia worked with the school to make sure his paperwork was in order and gather materials about Mr. Gray’s time at the school. Mrs. Atkinson said Mr. Gray’s name was in with the class in the yearbook, but his photo never made it in.

The initial plan was for Mr. Gray to attend the school’s graduation ceremony on June 22, but that plan was changed due to concerns about it being overwhelming.

Instead, the brief presentation of his diploma was moved to his home.

The diploma presented Monday is the same one graduates will receive later this month.

“He’s college and career ready,” Mr. Fralick said with a smile.

Mrs. Shepard said it would have been nice if Mr. Gray’s brothers, high school graduates and fellow World War II veterans, had been around to celebrate with her uncle. The two survived the war but are now deceased.

Mr. Fralick and Mrs. Atkinson said they weren’t sure if Mr. Gray was the oldest graduate they had ever had, but said it was rare to have someone his age graduate.

“Do you know a lot of 97-year-old high school graduates?” Mrs. Atkinson said.

Mr. Gray’s enthusiasm for his diploma left an impact with the younger members of the school’s contingent.

“It’s nice to see how happy he was,” said Mark L. Derbyshire, class of 2013 salutatorian. “Not many people are that excited about getting their diploma.”

Mr. Derbyshire said he is planning to talk about Mr. Gray during his speech at graduation.

Valedictorian Siraj A. Sindhu said it was “fun to have a new member of the class.”


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