A WWII Vet Graduates

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If you go to Boys and Girls High in Brooklyn, the school's dean of discipline, Tony Eglesias, will do his best to help you get your diploma. He works hard and has patience: his most recent graduate took 63 years to complete high school.

I recently asked Eglesias about the sorry state of education in this city. He's 40, an 18-year teaching veteran, but had no easy answer.

"I've only worked at Boys and Girls High, so I can only speak to this school. Here we service seven of the roughest housing projects in New York, yet we have had major success. That's because it starts from the top."

He's referring to the school's principal, Frank Mickens.

"The man works 14-to-16-hour days, and you just won't get that at other schools. Every year he's been here we have had an increase in the amount of Regents diplomas earned. He started things like a Student of the Month breakfast, and in October we have the boys wear shirts and ties on Mondays and Tuesdays. Mickens was able to get Van Heusen to donate the clothes so no kid can say he doesn't have any."

When I asked Eglesias about his 76-year-old graduate, he wanted first to tell me about his father.

"You took one look at my father and you knew he was a Marine. He had all this Marine paraphernalia around the house and on the walls, so I always had an affinity for them. Unfortunately, my dad passed eight years ago."

This March Eglesias got into work early. He has an easy commute from his Brooklyn Heights apartment to the Bed-Stuy school, but Principal Mickens was already at work, and handed a letter to him when Eglesias came in. The letter was from a World War II veteran's wife requesting her husband's high school diploma. The vet had gone to the school from 1939 to 1942 but left after his junior year to join the Marines.

Eglesias knew that the state legislature had passed a bill called Operation Recognition. It allows veterans from WWII and Korea who never finished high school to contact the school they attended and, with proof of honorable-discharge papers, get the "life experience credit" needed to earn their diplomas.

"When reading the letter, my dam started to break," Eglesias recalls. "I thought of my father, who had also quit high school to join the Marines. I realized that this guy was 76 and I had to take care of this right away."

Eglesias had a Boys H.S. diploma printed up for the man, Nathan Meyer. (The school was just Boys H.S. when Meyer last attended in 1942.) Out of his own pocket he had it matted and framed. Eglesias then hunted down a 1943 yearbook. He photocopied it and put the pages in a binder. He figured Meyer would enjoy the trip down memory lane. He called the Meyers and they set a date to meet out at the Meyers' home in Sheepshead Bay on a weekend.

"Nathan Meyer is your typical World War II vet, in that he doesn't talk much?particularly about himself or his war experiences. His wife Natalie did most of the talking. But they were thrilled with all the stuff I brought."

Meyer's son said it was nice of Eglesias to come all the way out to Sheepshead Bay to honor his father.

"I told him that his father had gone a lot farther than that. It was the least I could do."

Eglesias has one last surprise for Meyer: he's going to put his photo in the 2002 yearbook.

"I have a wallet-sized photo of him in his Marine uniform at the age he would have been had he graduated. I'm going to put that in the book with the story of his quest to get his diploma."

I called Meyer to ask what took him so long getting out of high school. He laughed. "The first three years were the hardest." I tried to get him to talk about the war. All he would give me was that he thinks about it every day.

"My house is like a museum so I can look at things and remember those that were left behind. I don't want to forget them. It's starting to feel like now they are forgotten."

When I asked about his two Purple Hearts, Nathan Meyer had only one thing to say.

"It is an experience that I wouldn't wish on anyone."

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