NEWBURGH, N.Y. – George Whalen, 85, earned his diploma at Newburgh Free Academy in 1945 but he missed the graduation ceremony for duty in the U.S. Navy. Whalen served on the USS Huntington and he remembers visiting Puerto Rico and Cuba during his deployment.
For 68 years, he sometimes thought about not having the chance to attend his graduation, especially during graduation season. “Every time someone in the family was graduating and didn’t want to go to their graduation, I would tell them to go because I didn’t get to go to mine,” he says.
Whalen received his diploma in 1945 but had to leave for duty to the Sampson Naval Base in upstate New York three weeks before the graduation. “I heard about the ceremony from my parents,” he says.
He finally got his wish and, on June 25, the long-overdue ceremony took place at the Newburgh Free Academy’s 148th commencement.
This special occasion was the work of his daughter and niece, who talked to the school and arranged for Whalen to attend this year’s graduation ceremony at NFA. “A week before the graduation my niece showed up here with the cap and she said, ‘Here try this on because you’re going to be walking in the graduation ceremony,’” he says, confessing to being shocked and surprised.
He also walked with his granddaughter Emily Hovey, who was part of the graduating class of 2013. “Not that many grandfathers get to graduate with their granddaughter and it was a nice final touch to it,” he says.
When he walked on stage, all the students gave him a standing ovation. “I saluted them all. I felt honored,” he says.
After his service in the Navy, Whalen returned home to New York and began to build his family. “My wife and I didn’t know we would end up having 10 children,” he says.
He worked as a printer and raised his five girls and five boys. “That kept me busy,” he says.
He has been retired for 24 years now and has been married for 59 years.
George Whalen’s message for veterans:
For veterans coming home now I’m sure is quite a different transition when you get home if you don’t have your education. Go get your education, that’s important, otherwise you’ll be at the back of the pack your whole life and struggle to make ends meet. Keep plugging at it, keep working at it. Don’t stop learning.
Second Tour is an ABC News digital series profiling the lives of military veterans who are doing unique things in the civilian world, including vets who took on an entrepreneurial venture to create a business, grassroots organization or a second career. For more stories visit http://abcnews.go.com/US/Second_Tour/.