Vermillion veteran receives diploma Sunday Darrel Christopherson received a long standing ovation from the capacity crowd in Slagle Auditorium Sunday as he received his high school diploma from Tom Craig, president of the Vermillion School Board. by David Lias and Randy Dockendorf Darrel Christopherson received a standing ovation from the packed audience in Slagle Auditorium as he worked his way to the stage to receive his diploma from Vermillion High School Sunday.
The applause wasn't inspired by Christopherson's accomplishments in the classroom.
He isn't an Honor Programs graduate.
He isn't a member of the National Honor Society.
He isn't a Regent Scholar.
Christopherson, 80, is a survivor.
While his Vermillion High School classmates were focused on teenage pursuits during World War II, Darrel Christopherson was dodging a rain of terror from the skies.
The Vermillion man skipped his last two years of high school to enlist in the Navy on his 17th birthday � Feb. 12, 1941 � and head to a little-known place called Pearl Harbor.
On Dec. 7, 1941, he was aboard the USS Vestal when Japanese bombers unleashed the day that would live in infamy.
Christopherson survived the onslaught and served 20 years in the Navy, then returned home to serve 23 years in the Vermillion Police Department. Despite his long list of accomplishments, the man who gave up his youth for his country was still missing his high school diploma.
On Sunday, he retrieved the missing piece of his life's puzzle by graduating with the VHS Class of 2004.
"I think it's real nice," he said in a interview a few days before the commencement. "When I retired 18 years ago, I never thought I would go back to high school. But now I'm graduating, and the school even furnished the cap and gown for me."
Christopherson took advantage of a change in state law allowing school districts to award diplomas to World War II veterans who did not complete high school because of military service. The Vermillion district previously awarded a diploma under the new law to James Dahlman.
"I haven't run into anybody who doesn't think it's great," Christopherson said of his graduation.
Bea, his wife of 58 years, beamed as she watched him adjust his mortarboard. "I'm so proud of him for doing this," she said.
The couple has four children: Kathi Larson, Yankton; Rick Christopherson, Gayville; Ray Christopherson, Fargo, ND; and Sharon Peters, Albuquerque, NM.
Rick Christopherson said he wasn't surprised by his father's desire to receive his diploma.
"Then again, so many things Dad did in the past didn't surprise me," Rick said.
Darrel entered the Navy for practical as well as patriotic reasons, Rick said.
"You had a 17-year-old kid leaving home and going into the military to help support his family. Most 17-year-olds today are more worried about getting their next check for (spending it on) Friday," Rick said.
"But Dad came from a large family, about a dozen kids, and he was growing up in the Depression of the 1930s. It was a struggle. A lot of people were going into the military. Dad's oldest brother was disabled, but the rest of his brothers went on to retire with 20 or more years in the military."
Larson choked back tears at the thought of Sunday's graduation.
"It will be a really emotional day for me," she said. "Dad has always been my hero, and now this (graduation). I am so proud of him."
Darrel's desire to receive his diploma was spurred on by his continuous contact with students interested in his Pearl Harbor experiences, Rick said. "I think the educating of young people kind of triggered Dad to go back and graduate from high school," he added.
Darrel's participation in Sunday's ceremony will send a powerful message to the other graduates, Rick said.
"Every one of those kids walking across the stage had somebody defend their rights for them," Rick said. "Here, you have an 80-year-old man who went to war and was nearly blown out of the water by the Japanese, then served 20 years in the military and 23 years protecting the same people of this community."
"A lot of what he has already done has given those kids the freedom to walk across the stage," Rick added.
Darrel also shows the importance of maintaining a zest for life, Rick said.
"When Dad turned 80, he turned 20. He goes all over the place to his grandkids' baseball games and dance lessons. He's still an avid hunter. He is involved in the community. He's not your typical 80-year-old," Rick said.
"It doesn't surprise me that he decided to graduate. When he sets his mind to doing something, he does it. I am really proud of him. I think he's an incredible guy."
While Christopherson could have privately received his diploma last year, he wanted to walk down the aisle with the rest of his "classmates," said Superintendent Bob Mayer.
"He teaches Americanism and flag etiquette. He was a police officer for 23 years, and he is involved in the VFW and American Legion. He has been a key player in Vermillion, so it's a pleasure to honor him," Mayer said.
Christopherson's path to a diploma began last November during a conversation with Ray Hofman, the Clay County veteran's service officer.
"Darrel mentioned he didn't have a diploma. I said, 'Let's get that going,' and we pretty much took it from there," Hofman said. "Bob Mayer wanted Darrel to go through commencement, so this is icing on the cake."
Each day brings greater urgency to recognize World War II veterans, Hofman said.
"They are getting up in their 80s, and we are losing 1,000 of them a day," he said. "Every week, there is at least one funeral for a World War II veteran in Vermillion."
NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw, who graduated across town at The University of South Dakota, paid fitting tribute to Christopherson and his World War II mates, Mayer said.
"Tom Brokaw said this was the 'Greatest Generation,' and they have had a profound impact," Mayer said. "They have given their life struggling for liberty. Without them, we would be looking at living under the Nazis and Japanese. To recognize Darrel is a special thing."
The current war on terror � including the deployment of Company B, 109th Medical Battalion in Vermillion � has reinforced the importance of sacrifice for security and liberty, Mayer said. "The last six months to a year, a lot of people have put their lives on the line," he said.
"It was never my idea at all
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that I would be winding up in a war. Even at Pearl Harbor, they never had the slightest inclination that the Japanese would bomb us," Christopherson said.
"But that morning, I was on the Vestal and we were tied to the Arizona. We were hit twice, and our skipper was blown over the side from an explosion from the Arizona. We had an executive officer running around yelling, 'Abandon Ship!'"
Christopherson escaped the carnage, and he was sent to the South Pacific. In February 1944, he was transferred to Norfolk, VA, where he served on one of the largest ships in the amphibious forces.
He remained in the Navy for two decades, serving in places such as Australia, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Guam and Korea. Christopherson returned to Vermillion, where he served as a captain in the police force.
Christopherson said he welcomes speaking invitations, particularly to counter inaccurate or incomplete stories about Pearl Harbor.
"I've seen the movie Pearl Harbor. You've got two hours of love story and 45 minutes about Pearl Harbor. Believe me, I never seen anybody get any loving there during the attack," he said, citing his preference for the movie Tora! Tora! Tora!
Christopherson credited his military service with impacting his life.
"I didn't go to high school, but I have an education in life," he said. "My 20 years in the service molded my way of life. I learned to take orders, do things on my own and take initiative. Those are things I never would have learned on the outside."
However, Christopherson said he was fortunate no employer ever insisted on a diploma. "If I had to give any advice to the graduates, I would say to get all the education they could. If you can't afford school, then go in the service," he said.
Christopherson doesn't have any pressing plans for his life after receiving his sheepskin.
"At 80 years of age, I'm not going to get to use it. I won't be going to college, and I don't think I will be applying for a job," he said with a chuckle.