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Never too late: Soldiers earn diplomas, one more than 70 years after classmates

By David Barr davidbarr@pressandjournal.com
Posted 6/7/17

Alfred Carricato accepted his high school diploma on Wednesday, May 31, in the auditorium at Steelton-Highspire High School, about 72 years after his classmates.

There were no graduation …

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Never too late: Soldiers earn diplomas, one more than 70 years after classmates

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Alfred Carricato accepted his high school diploma on Wednesday, May 31, in the auditorium at Steelton-Highspire High School, about 72 years after his classmates.

There were no graduation gowns, no tossing of tassel-topped caps, no good-luck speeches. Instead, there was a hearty dose of thank-yous, appreciation and honor expressed to Carricato and his four other new classmates as they were finally presented with their high school diplomas after they dropped out of school to serve their country.

Carricato, a World War II veteran, dropped out of high school to enlist in the Navy, serving from 1944 to 1946 aboard the U.S.S. Chicago. He joked that he joined the Navy because “I didn’t want to dig a foxhole.”

With Carricato choosing to focus on serving his country rather than his studies, he gave up the chance to graduate. His mother never went to school, but she knew the value of a good education and so Carricato made a promise to her that one day he would eventually graduate when he returned home.

“It’s unbelievable. It’s something I never thought would happen,” said Carricato, who turns 91 this month.

Carricato was able to fulfill his promise thanks to the help of another family member. Carricato’s daughter Mary serves as the Steelton-Highspire school board president, and it was up to the board to make the decision to bring the first-ever Operation Recognition program to Steelton-Highspire.

“They all felt these men risked their lives for our freedom. They deserve to have a diploma,” Mary Carricato said.

According to the Pennsylvania General Assembly 1949 Act 14, a board of school directors may establish Operation Recognition, which is a program that provides for granting a high school diploma to any honorably discharged veteran who served in the U.S. military during World War II, the Korean War, or the Vietnam War.

These veterans must have attended high school between 1937-1946; 1947-1955; or 1958-1975 and would have been a member of a graduating class between 1941-1950; 1951-1957; or 1961-1975; and currently be a resident of the Steelton-Highspire School District or attended high school at Steel-High. Therefore this particular class of veterans could only be associated with the Steelton-Highspire School District and no other high school in the area.

Carricato’s new classmates are George Smith, a World War II Army veteran; Robert Zeigler, a Korean War Army veteran and Purple Heart recipient; and brothers Eugene Donato and Joseph Donato Jr, both World War II veterans. Eugene served with the Air Force, while Joseph served in the Army. Carricato was the sole living member of his new class. Family members of the other late graduates accepted the diplomas on their behalf.

Daniel and Dorothy Zeigler were in attendance in the memory of Daniel’s father, Robert, who served in the Korean War and passed away in 1993. In a way, it was as though Robert was in attendance as the Zeiglers had a portrait of him in his uniform with them at the ceremony.

“It’s an honor to me and probably a bigger honor to him that he was honored,” Daniel Zeigler said.

“He’d be proud. He’d say he did it for his mom,” Dorothy Zeigler said adding that if Robert was here, he’d probably want to go fishing now that the pomp and circumstance was over.

Robert Zeigler wouldn’t have been the only honoree wanting to avoid the fuss. The family of Joe Donato Jr., a World War II Army veteran, confirmed that while “he would have been very thankful to have a diploma” according to Joe’s son-in-law Keith Zeigler, Joe Jr. was not one to seek the spotlight and would have been very reluctant to be honored in Wednesday’s particular manner. Regardless, his family was appreciative of the gesture.

“I can’t begin to say how neat this is,” Joe Donato III said.

None of this would have been possible without Joe Ulrich, a maintenance man for the school. Ulrich, a high school dropout and Marines veteran began chatting with third-grade students of teachers Amie Kretzing and Nicolle Esposito during the 2015-16 school year about the importance of education and what veterans mean to this country after they invited him to do so. Kretzing said Ulrich never shied away from sharing that he quit school and enlisted and that he later regretted his decision. However, Ulrich did go back almost 40 years after dropping out and earned his GED. Because Ulrich was willing to openly share his experiences, Kretzing invited him to speak to her students.

Ulrich was impressed with a letter written by one of Esposito’s students, Adomani Allsup, to his mother Amber, an Army member, and approached Esposito and Kretzing about doing something for veterans.

Esposito said she heard about Operation Recognition occurring at another school and this past fall, the idea was brought before the board of directors. Once given approval, plans were put in place and action was taken.

Veterans in the area who fit the criteria were contacted and third-grade students sold pens for a fundraiser. Esposito was unsure how much was raised, but enough money was raised that students were able to purchase commemorative plaques for the third-grade teachers and flags representing all five branches of the military as well as a POW-MIA flag for the graduation ceremony.