Itís been 70 years since Alvia Hearren completed his senior classes at Benton Harbor High School, but because of World War II, he never got to walk across a stage and receive his diploma on graduation day.
That will all change this evening when the 88-year-old veteran dons a black robe and square academic cap to turn his tassel with the 2013 graduating class of the Benton Harbor Tigers in Benton Harbor, Mich.
"Itís been on my mind quite a while, but more so in the last six, eight months I got to thinking about it," said Hearren, who lives in New Bern. "I wanted to know just what it would feel like, even though in reality itís old, I still wanted to grasp a little bit of the excitement that they have and see what it felt like."
Hearren joined the Marine Corps on Dec. 8, 1942. He was supposed to graduate in June of 1943, but service requirements meant he had to miss his class commencement. On what was supposed to be his graduation day, Hearren was well on his way to becoming an aircraft mechanic at Cherry Point. Eventually, he shipped out to serve in the South Pacific at the tail end of the war.
Hearrenís original diploma eventually came by mail to his parents, and he located it after the warís end, but in the last few months, he has been planning to return to his high school so he could walk across a stage and have his degree handed to him just like any other graduate.
"I just want to do it," Hearren said. "That school, while I was there, they won three straight state championships in basketball, football and in track during the time I was in high school. It was a well-known and well-liked school."
Hearren sent a letter explaining his wishes to Benton Harbor Principal Kathy Brooks.
"He asked if he could come back and graduate, and we thought it was a wonderful opportunity for him," she said. "We were more than happy to welcome him.
"Itís just honoring people that did good things and we want them to know that we appreciate the hard work that they did and the sacrifice that they made back then, so weíre really pleased to honor them."
Hearren, a widower, and four of his five children will join other graduates for a reception at 5 p.m. today before the graduation ceremony at 6 p.m. on Filstrup Field.
"Everybody marches down the ramp. The ramp is one of the prides of Benton Harbor High School," Brooks said. "Everyone says they want to walk the field with the yelling and so forth. Thatís just a tradition here. Heíll be lined up with my graduates and he will go down with the rest of them."
Last week, Hearren looked over a copy of an his old report card, which the school found and sent to him.
"I got plenty of Bs and Cs there. Thatís not too bad I guess," he said. "I always thought I was about an average student. They got me graduated 6-9-43. That would be about right, wouldnít it? Neeleyville, Mo., thatís where I was born," Hearren said as he looked at the marks at his dining room table. "Evidently they kept pretty good records up there."
Hearren said he and many classmates never thought they would have the opportunity to go to college because of the war.
"I could have got that college education too, but I went to Cherry Point and got that job for 97 cents an hour," he said. "Thatís what I started at down there. I made mechanic after nine months. When I went to mechanic, it was $1.32."
Hearren said he walked to school from grade school all the way to high school from his home at 992 Chicago Ave., on Benton Harborís east side.
"I didnít wear a hat. I wore ear muffs in the winter time. It was a long ways," he said.
Hearren said he doesnít have any expectations of the upcoming experience, but does want to tell the young students a couple of things if theyíll let him.
"Iíd tell them that the education that they have right now is a good foundation," he said. "Iíd also like to tell them to always do unto others what youíd like done unto you. If I get the chance, thatís two things.
"Anybody graduating from high school couldnít have a better foundation, especially with the technology we have now, the leaps and bounds and how they start children now with computers and everything in the first grade."
Brooks believes the students will appreciate Hearren walking with them.
"Walking down that ramp is such a rewarding feeling for our young people, and I think seeing him come back and showing ĎHey, I missed walking this ramp and now at 88 I just want to walk this ramp,í that just shows that Tiger pride," she said. "I think the kids will understand that hereís a person that really understands the true value of having an education. It will be inspirational for all of our young people.
"We all are Tigers. Weíre Tigers from the heart, so knowing that hereís another Tiger, an older Tiger that didnít get that opportunity back then, I know our young people will definitely embrace the situation, and knowing them, theyíre going to stand up and give him a standing ovation."
Hearren said he remembers good times at the school.
"I canít gripe a bit," Hearren said. "It was really good to me."