COVINGTON — It took almost eight decades, but Lester Schmidt finally graduated from high school.
The 96-year-old World War II veteran accepted his honorary diploma from Hardin-Houston Local Board of Education President Joel Knouff at the Covington Care Center where Schmidt has been a resident for about a month.
“I’m not a very good speech maker,” said the retired plumber smiling widely while fighting back tears.
“There’s one thing about it, it takes my breath away to think about this,” he added, surrounded by family and looking dapper in a crisp dress shirt with a matching bow tie.
Knouff presented the diploma along with Hardin-Houston Superintendent Larry Claypool in an unofficial ceremony June 4.
“To the best of my knowledge, it’s the first one [diploma] we’ve ever done in the district,” the 35-year-old board president said.
“You’re a Wildcat now,” Claypool said, congratulating the slight-built senior who was forced to quit junior high school at 14 because of his mother’s death.
There were 10 children in the Schmidt family.
“My dad put my older brothers and sisters on their own,” Schmidt said.
The younger children were accepted at an orphanage in Cincinnati, but having graduated from eighth grade, Lester was too old to meet the home’s eligibility requirements.
The teenager found work as a farm month hand. He remembers that his “first job [paid] a $1.50 a month,” but it was the room and board for which he was most grateful.
The industrious youth tried to enlist in the service when he was about 17 or 18, but because of a hearing problem was turned down. Instead at 18, he began working at the former Gartland-Haswell Foundry in Sidney, and later at Hobart Brothers in Troy.
He married his first wife, Rita, in 1940, and the couple were blessed with almost 50 years of marriage. For three years before her death, Schmidt cared for his beloved spouse as she battled Lou Gehrig’s disease.
The couple had seven children including: Doris Schmidt (now deceased), Alice Chappie, of Sidney; Connie Sheldon, of Centerville; and Richard (Mary) Schmidt, Bob (Chris) Schmidt, Sharon (Larry) Grube, and Sandy (Randy) Stine, all of Piqua.
Schmidt later remarried, but was widowed a second time.
It was in 1944, when the husband and already father of three, was drafted despite his hearing loss, because our nation was engaged in World War II. Along with being stationed stateside, the radarman second class served in Iwo Jima; Pacific Theater. After returning from war, the Navy veteran became a plumber and lifelong Covington resident.
As for becoming a high school graduate, one evening when son, Bob, and his wife, Chris, were visiting at the Covington Care Center, “He [Lester] was reading the [news]paper, … they were advertising for classes to be able to complete a GED at Upper Valley Career Center,” 66-year-old Bob Schmidt said.
His father said, “I think I need to do this,” referring to taking GED classes.
Bob and Chris Schmidt realized that although the diploma seemed of bucket-list importance, attending classes would be too taxing, because the senior Schmidt has difficulty getting around.
“My wife and I were thinking [that] he went to Oran [a defunct H-H school] and Houston, and it only made sense to call there,” Bob Schmidt said.
When Schmidt’s son phoned inquiring about an honorary diploma, the Shelby County superintendent identified instantly.
“My late father, Harold Claypool, of Van Wert, had to drop out of school in the eighth grade when my grandparents divorced,” Claypool said. “He went into foster care and became a farmhand like Mr. Schmidt, and was also a World War II veteran. Sadly, my father never realized his dream of receiving a diploma, so this was like fulfilling Dad’s wish.”
When Claypool presented the unusual request to the H-H board, they unanimously agreed.
“During the Great Depression a lot of people didn’t get the opportunity to finish their education,” Knouff said. “They had to work hard just to be able to survive, and then … serve their county during a time of war. [You’ve] got to do the right thing to someone who has contributed to the community and the country.”
Despite having a difficult youth, “he never complained,” said the recent graduate’s youngest daughter, Sandy Stine. “He taught [his children] you take your circumstances and make the best of it.”
As for plans following gradation, the elderly veteran sat in his wheelchair proudly holding his new diploma. He said with excitement, “You can bet your bottom dollar I’m going to have this on the wall.”