Richard Stem left Westminster High School before graduation to join the military at the start of World War II, and he never returned to pick up his diploma. Now, the 93-year-old is set to become one of the earliest graduates of the class of 2014.
On Wednesday, the Carroll County Board of Education will award Stem a high school diploma under a 2000 state law that allows World War II veterans who left for service as seniors in high school before graduation to be awarded diplomas. He will coincidentally receive his diploma the same week he and other current and former military personnel nationwide observe Veterans Day.
Carroll County officials said such diplomas do not designate which school the graduate attended and make no mention of the recipient's original graduation year. Still, it's a welcoming milestone for Stem, who inquired about getting his diploma after reading a story about another veteran recipient.
"It took 75 years to get it," Stem said in a phone interview. "I'm 93 years old. I figure if I was ever going to do it, I better do it now."
He will receive his diploma at the school board's regular meeting in Westminster. Carroll County school officials said he is the second veteran to receive his diploma this year.
Stem said he left school when he was in his late teens — he can't recall exactly how old he was — and signed up for the Army. He had begun high school toward the end of the Great Depression, and after enlisting in the military, "I ran home and got a couple of things and I never [went] back." After training, he served in the U.S. Army Air Forces, before the nation's military aviation branch became a separate entity.
He was stationed at training command at Liberal, Kan., in the early 1940s and served as a flight engineer for a B-24 Bomber. He said that toward the end of the war he toured the South West Pacific and was part of a group that took prisoners of war from Japan to the Philippines. He was honorably discharged in 1946.
After the war, Stems landed a job with Maryland-based American Totalisator Co., a parimutuel wagering equipment maker that is now known as Am Tote International. He worked at the company, he said, for more than 40 years, and scarcely found the need for a high school diploma.
"It was a traveling job all over the United States and Canada, so I didn't stay in any place long enough to get a GED," Stem said. "I figured I wouldn't need it any more."
Yet he is among many who relish the chance to receive a diploma. Judy Klinger, Carroll County schools supervisor of school counseling, said the district has awarded more than two dozen diplomas since the law went into effect.
Klinger said soon after the law was passed, the school system sought recipients and held a ceremony in their honor. Now, she said, the degrees are awarded on a case-by-case basis.
The state law covers those who withdrew from a full-time public or private school during senior year to enlist during the war and were subsequently honorably discharged. Klinger said recipients fill out applications that ask such questions as what school they attended, when they enlisted and whether they reside in the county.
She said for most who receive diplomas, the experience is similar to that of a high school gradation, complete with family members in attendance.
For Stem's ceremony, his two sons, a daughter and their children are expected to attend.
"We're really excited about it," said Richard Stem Jr., the elder Stem's 68-year-old son. "He did all this on his own, and told us one day he was going to get his diploma, and wanted us to come. We were like, 'what?' "
"He's extremely intelligent," the younger Stem said of his father. "He just didn't finish school in those early days."
Klinger said the ceremony, while brief, is meaningful for the families.
"I've been to several, and you see people all around moved by the fact that this person had pretty much served the country and this little piece was forgotten along the way," Klinger said.
"It's humbling that we can honor them with their diploma," she said.