Better late than never: Vale veteran receives diploma after 70 years

Family and friends stepped in to make 90-year-old Robert Szczepanski’s dream of a high school diploma a reality recently. (The Enterprise/Kristine de Leon).

VALE – It was a special case of better late than never for Vale resident Robert Szczepanski, who received his high school diploma Saturday, nearly 72 years after he would have gotten it if he hadn’t enlisted in the U.S. Army to serve in World War II.

Szczepanski said getting a high school diploma has been the dream of his life.

His family and friends made it possible.

On Saturday, a representative from the Vallivue School District met Szczepanski and his current wife at their Vale home and presented him with a diploma from Ridgevue High School in Nampa. Sue Youngblood, the vice principal at Desert Springs Elementary within the Vallivue School District, presented a leather-bound high school diploma to the 90-year-old on behalf of Ridgevue High School Principal Robert Gwyn.

“I’m glad we were able to make this happen,” Youngblood said. “He’s had his GED. When he got the GED, that shows that he’s completed the coursework.”

And since Ridgevue High is so tied to the military and they are really appreciative of those who served for the country, the principal just really wanted to do it.”

She said the high school had originally planned to have Szczepanski walk alongside the Ridgevue class of 2019.

“That wasn’t feasible because of his health,” Youngblood said.

Szczepanski’s wife Audrey said, “It really meant a lot to him. We’re happy we made him happy with a lifelong dream.”

She thought it was appropriate, too, that her husband was getting a diploma from a school whose mascot is the Warhawks, named for the P-40 Warhawk aircraft that flew during World War II.

When asked how it felt to finally get his diploma, Szczepanski sighed.

“I’ve been trying to get it for years,” Szczepanski said, as he inspected the diploma before him on the table. “I got one of those GEDs in Fort Lewis, Washington.”

Szczepanski said he always wanted to get a diploma to prove himself. The Ohio native had a rough childhood and was forced to leave school his junior year after he got in a fight with some bullies from school.

“There was a fight right there, a big fight,” he said. “They were always picking on me.”

Szczepanski’s voice cracked and tears welled up.

“I’d get in trouble,” he continued. “I was told to get out the door and don’t come back… Everyone’s always picking on me. I was the small guy.”

Szczespanski’s voice trailed, and a brief silence filled the room.

To this day, Szczepanski remembers their taunts and jeers.

“I’d tell you what. I’d whip them. They don’t get nothing on me,” he said, as his left arm began to shake characteristic of the slow, rhythmic tremor of Parkinson’s disease. “I wanted to stay in school but they told me to get out, so that’s when I joined the service.”

Szczepanski said he initially tried to enlist in the Army when he was 16.

“I tried to get in but they caught me, saying I was too young,” Szczepanski said. “So April 17, 1946, I was 17 years old. I went back to the recruiter and joined up.”

He later fought in the Korean and Vietnam wars before he was honorably discharged after serving 20 years. During his years in the Army, Szczepanski serviced aircraft, transported equipment and weapons, and built airstrips and highways. He eventually took on a supervisory role overseeing different trades, such as auto mechanics, carpentry and construction.

After retiring from the military, Szczepanski took his skills to Saudi Arabia where he worked for an American-Saudi venture for eight years training Saudi Arabian military personnel on different trades.

After returning stateside, Szczepanski bounced around, living in different states, including Alaska, Washington, Oregon and Arizona and became an electrician. He was married twice before he met his current wife. He was married for 38 years to his second wife, Marilyn, who had two adopted kids from a previous marriage. Together, they owned a home in Umatilla.

Szczepanski never had children of his own. Instead, he treated Marilyn’s adopted son and daughter as if they were his own kids.

“He didn’t adopt them, but he raised them as his own,” Szczepanski’s wife said. “He actually raised them since they were little kids.”

When his second wife died of cancer in 2009, Szczepanski felt lonely. His Umatilla home was almost all paid off but he felt like he couldn’t stay.

“When everything was closing in on me, I said I’ve got to go somewhere,” Szczepanski said. “My boy said to come down to Boise, so I agreed to it.”

He sold his Umatilla home and moved into a senior center in Emmett in 2010 to be closer to his stepson Ed Bennett.

But tragedy struck again. Szczepanski received news that his stepdaughter had died by suicide.

Szczepanski “took it very hard,” according to his current wife Audrey. The two had met while Szczepanski was living at the senior center. They and eventually married in 2015 and moved into a small home in Vale in 2016.

Audrey said one thing that always bothered her husband was “missing out on getting a high school diploma.”

 “I didn’t realize how important it was to him,” Audrey said. Last spring, a family friend who worked at the Vallivue School District in Nampa overheard and approached the Ridgevue principal.

Szczepanski wasn’t clear about what specifically inspired him to pursue a high school diploma, but he often brought up the painful memories from his youth while living in Ohio.

“I wanted to prove to those who threw me out of school that I could get it,” he chuckled. “I was going to make them eat it.”

Szczepanski also felt like he was missing something in life. He thought about his peers in Ohio who graduated high school and how they were celebrated.

“They all graduated – everybody at my high school, except me,” Szczepanski said.

When asked if he was going to college, Szczepanski joked, “Yeah, might as well. I don’t have anything else to do.”

Have a news tip? Reporter Kristine de Leon: [email protected] or 541-473-3377.

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