Diploma ‘a wonderful thing’ for 87-year-old WWII veteran

Posted Aug. 05, 2009, at 8:10 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Nearly every day, Charles E. Colburn leaves his assisted-living apartment on Water Street to embark on a 3-mile walk downtown, often directly past City Hall.

His gait is a little slower than most and he uses a cane for assistance, but the octogenarian with sharp eyes behind thick glasses and a military-style haircut turned gray is always moving forward.

A few weeks ago during one of his walks, Colburn stopped at City Hall and summoned the courage to go inside and ask about something that’s been on his mind for nearly 70 years.

He shunned the elevator for the 52 steps to the third floor of the municipal building. He reached the top and found the office of Bangor Superintendent of Schools Betsy Webb.

“He promised to make my day,” Webb recalled of her first meeting with Colburn. “And he did.”

A sense of duty

In November 1942, just eight months shy of his high school graduation, Colburn enlisted in the U.S. Army to serve in World War II. In the midst of one of the deadliest wars in history, duty took priority over education for many.

Colburn served for the remainder of WWII and was honorably discharged in February 1946. Three years later, the Bangor man re-enlisted, this time with the U.S. Air Force reserves, and later served in Korea.

After leaving the military a second time, Colburn and his wife, Elizabeth, settled in Bangor and raised their only child, Jane. He worked a variety of jobs, became a member of the Bangor Masons and the Shriners, and eventually retired, when his interest turned to history.

But he never stopped thinking about the high school diploma he never received.

“I would go to bed at night and think of all the places I’ve gone and the things I’ve done,” Colburn said. “I never forgot about that.”

Research at the Library

As it turns out, Colburn was entitled to a high school diploma even if he technically didn’t finish school. All he had to do was show proof of military service and proof that he attended Bangor High School in the early 1940s.

The military records were easy, but Colburn had to track his school records through old microfilm stored at the city’s public library.

“He did it all on his own,” said Jane Helsley, his daughter. “I think it was something where he was never going to feel complete until he had that diploma.”

Webb made the arrangements to organize a small ceremony to award Colburn his long-overdue diploma. As luck would have it, his 87th birthday, Aug. 5, was fast approaching.

Graduation day

Colburn walked into the auditorium at James F. Doughty School on Wednesday where dozens of Bangor teachers and administrators, including Webb, waited.

The superintendent brought the man to the front of the room and retold his story for the audience, including his visit to her office a few weeks back. “I hope to make his day this time,” she said.

“It’s my honor to present you with this diploma from Bangor High School,” Webb said.

The entire room rose to its feet and applauded for several minutes, some visibly touched by the moment. No one was more touched than Colburn.

“This is something I never expected,” he said, reaching for a handkerchief. “By God, it’s a wonderful thing.”

A space to fill

The brief ceremony ended and Colburn entertained media members with stories of his past and how much it meant for him to hold that piece of paper in his hand.

At the moment, his granddaughter Bethanie Hall, soon to be a sophomore at Bangor High School, was in charge of keeping an eye on the diploma. She likely won’t have to wait as long as her grandfather to get her own.

Once he gets home, Colburn said, he has a permanent place for his new diploma.

Since his wife died about five years ago and he moved into an assisted-living facility, Colburn has less space than he’s used to. One wall in his living room — he calls it his special wall — is set aside for the things he’s most proud of. The things he most wants to show off.

Directly in the middle of that wall is a small blank space waiting to be filled.

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