Better late than never

Acting School Superintendent Leroy Nunery II (right) awards a diploma to Clarence Edward Reed Jr., who served in Vietnam.
Acting School Superintendent Leroy Nunery II (right) awards a diploma to Clarence Edward Reed Jr., who served in Vietnam. (SARAH J. GLOVER / Staff Photographer)

Phila. awards diplomas to those who left high school to serve in wartime.

Posted: January 23, 2012

The auditorium was full, with speeches and smiles and caps and gowns and, at the end, diplomas handed to beaming graduates.

The diplomas came 40 and 50 years late, but that didn't matter.

"I'm still proud," graduate Clarence Reed said. "I'm still trying to better my life and my kids' lives."

Under a Pennsylvania law known as Operation Recognition, school districts are authorized to award diplomas to those who left high school before graduating to serve in the military during World War II and the Korean and Vietnam Wars.

Last week, the Philadelphia School Reform Commission awarded diplomas to six men - Timothy D. Clohessey, Lincoln High, Vietnam War; Frank John Hallinger, Roxborough High, World War II; James Edward Hamms, Benjamin Franklin High, Vietnam; Clarence Edward Reed Jr., Benjamin Franklin High, Vietnam; Roland Amory Smalls, Benjamin Franklin High, Vietnam; and James W. Williams, Northeast High, World War II.

Four were in the audience, dressed in full graduation regalia. They beamed as the audience, gathered for an SRC meeting, cheered, clapped, and whistled. A district official read:

"Whereas, in recognition of the efforts and sacrifices made by these veterans, the School District of Philadelphia would like to honor these gentlemen for their service to the United States of America."

Clohessey, who grew up in Mayfair, dropped out of Lincoln because he needed to make money. His parents had died and he needed to help care for a sick sibling.

He and some buddies joined the Marines in 1959. He spent time at Camp Lejune and in the Caribbean, once floating off the coast of Cuba for four months.

When Clohessey returned to Philadelphia, he worked in factories, then became a city firefighter. It was a different time; his lack of high school diploma wasn't a problem.

"I went to night school a couple of times, but then things came up," said Clohessey, 71. "My wife got pregnant. We had kids. I was working a second job."

Clohessey retired after 25 years as a firefighter, then got a job as a cook. But after he was laid off from that job, finding work again wasn't as easy.

He thought he was a lock for a job as a driver. The company he picked loved his experience but said it could not hire him because he had not graduated from high school.

"That really pushed me," Clohessey said. A job counselor who knew about the Pennsylvania law suggested he put in paperwork to get his diploma.

"When I got the letter in the mail, I felt kind of shy. I said, 'Holy mackerel!'

"I owe a lot of gratitude to a lot of people who stood behind me," said Clohessey, who still lives in the Northeast and is married with four children and 11 grandchildren.

Reed, 60, was similarly grateful to receive his diploma. With the United States embroiled in the Vietnam War, he left Benjamin Franklin High in 1970 to join the Marine Corps.

"It was a tradition in my family," Reed said. "I just wanted to serve my country."

Reed, who lives in the Northeast now but who grew up in North Philadelphia at 15th and Thompson Streets, was discharged in 1972, then returned home and found work as a machinist. Like Clohessey, he thought at times about earning his high school equivalency degree, but it was never the right time.

"I got into family life, and everything else was put on hold," he said. "I got caught up in life."

Now disabled and out of work - he needs a double knee replacement - Reed realized it was time to move on the diploma. He was helped by the same job counselor who motivated Clohessey to apply.

He hopes to be an inspiration to his 10 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

His oldest granddaughter, 22, graduated from college with honors, but that's just a start, Reed said.

"I'm trying to push the rest of them to go to college," he said.

Yvette Young, who oversees the district's student records department, said she was delighted to help make the diplomas happen.

"We didn't really have anything in place before to recognize veterans," she said. "We were glad to do it. They made a lot of sacrifices to keep us safe."


Contact staff writer Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146, kgraham@phillynews.com, or @newskag on Twitter. Read her blog, "Philly School Files," at www.philly.com/schoolfiles.

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