Never too late to graduate

Ken Olson

When Ken Olson was a junior, he left Lee High School to enlist in the Army, where he spent two years stationed at Fort Knox, Kentucky. While enlisted, he earned a GED which, he was told, he could bring to his alma mater in exchange for a high school diploma.

Years after his discharge, he went to the then-principal at Lee and said he was told no — you can’t get your diploma until you take 12th-grade English.

The years slipped by. Olson settled in Lowell where he worked for CSX. He met and married his wife, Sherry. He retired from the railroad after 44 years. But he never did get that diploma.

Ken Olson’s basketball picture, taken his junior year of high school

‘We’ll Help You With Yours’

Last summer, however, Sparta Adult Education opened a location at the Alpha Family Center in Lowell. During one of their outreach efforts, Sherry was talking to Tom Bratt, a teacher at SAE. She asked if he might help her husband get that diploma. They figured that he might just have to take the English course, and he’d be all set.

Bratt loves detective work, making connections and putting pieces together, so he got to work figuring out how to make this happen.

“We tell diploma-seekers, ‘Each student has their own story and we’ll help you with yours,’” he said. Although this story was certainly unique.

“This was a completely new scenario for us,” said Heather Holland, director of education for SAE. Nevertheless, Bratt and Ken began piecing together the information they needed.

Many of Olson’s service records were gone, casualties of a July 12, 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center in Minneapolis, which destroyed 16-18 million military personnel files.

Olson produced assorted discharge papers and records that he would have pitched, but that Sherry had kept stored away. They connected with the Department of Veterans Affairs and found a program that allowed service members who had enlisted during certain dates during World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, and who had earned a GED, to obtain diplomas. Ken missed the timeline by two weeks, but the VA said if Olson could secure permission from his former high school’s district superintendent, that would work.

Godfrey-Lee Superintendent Kevin Polston presents Ken Olson with his diploma for the class of 1952

Finally, the Diploma

When Bratt contacted Godfrey-Lee Public Schools, he immediately found an ally in Leela, executive assistant to Superintendent Kevin Polston. Her father, who served in World War II, had earned his diploma in his 70s, and she remembers him bursting with pride when he finally received it. The district just needed to verify that Olson attended Lee. The high school had no records of Olson, so Polston suggested checking yearbooks. It took just a few minutes to find all the evidence needed, and Leela got the go-ahead to order the diploma, complete with the likely graduation date: the Lee High School class of 1952.

On Nov. 12, Olson was invited to the Godfrey-Lee Public School District’s Board of Education meeting. There, at age 85, he received that piece of paper he’d been hoping for.

“It was great getting that diploma,” he said, adding that he was especially pleased that it made him a graduate of the class of 1952. “They gave me pictures of all my classmates from that year, and I remember a lot of them. It was just great.”

“Now what I should do is go and get a college degree,” he joked.

Bridie Bereza
Bridie Bereza hails from Lansing and has worked in the Grand Rapids area as a reporter, freelance writer, and communicator since graduating from Aquinas College in 2003. She feels privileged to cover West Michigan's public schools and hopes to shed a little light on the amazing things happening there through her reporting. Read Bridie's full bio.

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