Henry S. Black II was a junior at the Academy of Richmond County 58 years ago when he was drafted to fight in a war.
At the time, he was headed for a battlefield in Manila and figured he'd never return home to graduate from high school.
On Saturday, Mr. Black received his long-awaited high school diploma in honor of his military service. He did so in the presence of hundreds of American veterans, his wife, three children and two grandchildren - one of whom will graduate from high school next weekend.
"I never had any idea that I would get this," said the World War II veteran at Saturday's first Red, White and Blue Veteran's Celebration in Evans. "It kind of makes you think that you've done something worthwhile, something special."
The early Memorial Day gathering, which took place on an open field behind the Evans Kroger, included war medal and honorary diploma presentations to area veterans such as Mr. Black.
Participants also enjoyed a barbecue cook-off, performances of patriotic music, demonstrations by the Fort Gordon K9 unit and a fireworks display.
Organizers said they prepared for as many as 3,000 people to attend, and by mid-afternoon, against a backdrop of American flags, festivalgoers were getting into the spirit as Uncle Sam marched across the grounds shaking hands.
Jim Whitehead, a Columbia County commissioner and organizer of the event, said reviving patriotism in the area while honoring those who fought for it was the purpose of the event.
"I said before I left office ... I was going to do something like this," he said. "And I hope that one day it will become the biggest event in Columbia County."
At dusk, the crowd gathered to watch Columbia County School Superintendent Tommy Price present Mr. Black his diploma.
A new Georgia law allows World War II veterans who had their education interrupted by their service to receive diplomas.
For Mr. Black and his family, the recognition just as easily could have been an acknowledgement of a life well lived.
"Our family has grown with the feeling that their daddy and my husband has done something remarkable to raise three children, and they've all got good educations and good jobs," said Mrs. Black, adding that their 17-year-old granddaughter will graduate from Evans High School next weekend.
"I think this is an honor for the two grandchildren to see that their grandfather is going to get something one week before she gets her diploma."
For others, the event was long overdue.
"This is the first time I've seen anything organized like this in many, many years," Wayne Lethgo, a World War II, Korea and Vietnam veteran, said as several amplified voices performed God Bless America.
"It's been a long time coming."
And for at least one sixth-grader, the day's message hit home.
"They've done a lot for us," Lauren Redmon, a Lakeside Middle School pupil, said of the veterans. "So we owe them a lot."
Reach Preston Sparks at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 110, or email@example.com.
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