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World War II veteran receives high school diploma at 98

Donald Huisenga received the high school diploma he missed when he was drafted in 1943.

SAN ANGELO, Texas — Walking across a stage to receive a high school diploma is an important milestone in people's lives. For many, it means an arrival into adulthood.

Donald Huisenga didn't have that luxury.

Huisenga had a quiet childhood in Lake View, Iowa, a town home to a little more than 300 people.

"I played baseball and basketball and football. We didn't win anything, but we sure tried," he said.

Credit: Ashley Griffin

It was three months before graduation in 1943, when Huisenga received the letter. He was drafted into the U.S. Army to fight in World War II. 

He was quickly shipped off and trained with the Special Forces, so he could work behind enemy lines in France. All was well, until he received orders he wanted to refuse, but simply couldn't.

"I didn't like the captain and I didn't like the lieutenant that was there," Huisenga said. "They wanted me to take a bunch of greenies out behind the lines and show them what was going on. I said, 'You can stand here and look and you can see all you want. You don't have to send them back there.' And I took them anyway. Well, that's when I got hit. There was shrapnel and artillery. I don't know where it's mine or theirs."

Afterwards, he found himself locked in a German military prison.

"When I went in I was 175 pounds. When I got out I was 100 pounds and we didn't have anything to eat," Huisenga said.

He spent eight months working in the prison camp, until he and the other prisoners were discovered but Gen. George S. Patton and his troops.

"I had never been so happy to see anyone in my life," he said.

   

He came home to recover. More than 75 years later, Huisenga stood with his friends and family to receive the diploma he never was able to obtain.

The process to get to that moment started two months ago, when he visited the local VA clinic after moving to San Angelo from Marble Falls. He met with Tess Gooding, a social worker for West Texas VA.

"While I was doing the social work assessment with him, he told me about his life and his family," Gooding said. "I asked permission to reach out to the high school and, on his behalf, just see what they would say about giving him a ceremonious high school diploma."

Her call went to East Sac County High School Principal Kevin Litterer. He immediately started making inquiries. 

Huisenga went to Auburn High School, which closed down decades ago. Litterer tried to find someone who had a copy of a diploma from the former school and was able to get some help from Jostens, the company that makes high school graduation memorabilia. The company created a diploma just for Huisenga. 

Litterer also spoke to the mayor of Lake View and his school board, who voted to make Huisenga a member of the Auburn High School Class of 1943. 

Credit: Ashley Griffin

"I always hoped that I would get a diploma and I am pleased to punch. I couldn't be more pleased," Huisenga said.

During the ceremony, Huisenga not only received the specially created diploma, but a quilt made by the Quilts of Valor Foundation, an organization that creates quilts for veterans who have been impacted by war.

Credit: Ashley Griffin