NEWBURY, Mass. - John Whitney spent 1944 hunched over a radar terminal hunting for German planes somewhere in Europe while his high school classmates accepted their diplomas.
An army draft notice pulled Whitney into World War II after his junior year, and a life as a farmer and businessman never allowed him to pick up his degree.
On Memorial Day, however, the Governor Dummer Academy helped the 81-year-old finish what he had started as a teenager. Whitney was one of six veterans who received their degrees at the Newbury academy long after they left the school to fight for their country.
When the headmaster finally called his name, Whitney stood slowly.
"I felt as if my legs were going to give out," Whitney said, still blushing after the ceremony. "I always try to be humble, but I'm not used to situations like this."
Students have been leaving Dummer Academy to fight in wars since the American Revolution. The school, founded in 1763 by Massachusetts Bay Lt. Gov. William Dummer, claims to be the oldest boarding school in the nation.
Its graduates include Capt. Edward Preble, who commanded the fleet led by the USS Constitution. One of Dummer Academy's first black students was Wentworth Cheswell, often called the Paul Revere of New Hampshire for riding through the streets of Portsmouth to announce the Red Coats advance.
Other students served in the War of 1812. A plaque at the academy's entrance notes the names of 67 "Newbury Men" who "took up arms" to fight in World War I. During World War II, headmaster Edward W. Eames sent a monthly letter to Dummer Academy students serving abroad.
For a school that is older than the United States, there are more students such as Whitney who left for war and then fell through the cracks.
"We believe there are others we just don't know about," said Judith Klein, the school's director of communications.
Only two of the class of six were able to return to the school Monday to accept their degrees. Former classmates received the diplomas for them in absentia.
Gordon Hoyt, 80, who left the academy during his junior year for the Army, was the other veteran who made the trip. When his classmates graduated in 1945, Hoyt was in gunnery school in Florida.
"When you are 18 or 19 you aren't concerned with those things," said Hoyt, clutching his diploma at his side. "You start thinking about those things as life moves on."
Whitney stayed connected to the academy. His son graduated from Dummer Academy in 1970. His granddaughter received her diploma in 2001. A grandson followed in 2005.
Sitting through all three graduations, Whitney said he never really thought about not getting his own diploma.
He straightened his red bow tie decorated with flags from across the globe.
"I'm quite pleased," Whitney said. "Honored that they would think of me."
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