Robert “Sam” Wasson says it only took him 82 years to graduate.
The 94-year-old World War II veteran who served on five submarines in the Pacific Ocean from 1943 to 1953 finally received his diploma Monday morning.
It arrived in a black shadowbox frame in the hands of Wellington High School Principal Cara Hayden, who handed it to Wasson with a smile.
Wasson, always ready with a joke, grinned at Hayden. “I’m a Wolverine, right?” he asked, laughing, to her affirmative reply.
“Welcome to the Wolverine family,” she said, marking the the impromptu ceremony at Wasson’s apartment in The Landing at Lake Worth, an assisted living facility on State Road 7 just east of Wellington.
Wasson received the diploma as part of a program that allows veterans whose military service interrupted their high school education as a way to receive their diploma.
It was the culmination of a life of work, of a decade spent in the Navy, two decades as a business owner, even more time traveling the country.
But mostly, it was the fulfillment of a dream held for her children by Wasson’s mother, Clydie Wasson, who lived to be 100 years old.
She graduated high school in 1916, the first in her family to do so. Her wish was for all eight of her children to follow in her footsteps and graduate high school.
Wasson is the last child to graduate, he said.
“This completes the job,” Wasson said.
Wasson’s memories of high school are more about football and less about classes.
“I couldn’t sit in the classroom for one hour without getting up to look out the window,” he said. “I always wanted to know what was over there,” he added, pointing out his window.
Wasson was 16 in 1941 when Japan attacked the Navy base in Pearl Harbor. It was about a week and a half after Thanksgiving, when Wasson and his football team at Eldorado High School in Illinois played their final game as seniors. (Wasson entered high school at age 12).
Eleven seniors started that game and of those, Wasson said, four didn’t come home from World War II.
“I still remember their names to this day,” he said, his eyes brimming with tears. Gene, Charlie, Norman, Billy. All left their small Midwest town to fight for their country.
Two months after Pearl Harbor, the 16-year-old Wasson dropped out of high school and hitchhiked to the nearest Navy recruitment center. He started on a path that led him to the submarine program, where he worked as a cook for 10 years.
Wasson’s love of high school football has lasted through the decades. He started regularly attending Wellington High School football games around 2010, and was in the stands many nights in the 2014-2015 season as the Wolverines reached the Class 8A regional final.
During one game, Wasson struck up a conversation with a teacher sitting next to him. “I told him, ‘You know what? I’m going to graduate with this class,'” he said.
“When I played football, we couldn’t win a thing,” he said, laughing. “At least now I’m part of an undefeated team.”
While Wasson in December 2014 reached out to now retired-Principal Mario Crocetti to get the graduation ball rolling, the process was never completed.
Until this spring, when Wasson called The Palm Beach Post to ask for help.
Wasson said he didn’t want to bother Crocetti in the following years.
“I heard he was retiring, and I thought, that guy’s too busy for me,” he said. “Then I saw him out there in front of the school with a chainsaw after the hurricane (Irma) and I thought, ‘Oh he’s way too busy for me,'” he added, laughing.
Wasson decided to give back to the school that welcomed him that season with open arms.
He presented to Hayden on Monday morning a copy of “War Under the Pacific: World War II,” a book produced by Time Life in limited quantities and sent to submariners. Hayden said it will be displayed in Wellington High’s media center.
A life of service
Wasson’s apartment is filled with memorabilia from his time in the military, the dozens of marathons and half-marathons he ran after age 50, and his time as a restaurant owner.
But he is quick to play down his service to his country.
Wasson lived through the Great Depression. He describes his Naval career as spending “10 years as a volunteer in hazardous duty.” In one stretch, he deployed five times in five years throughout the Pacific Ocean.
He didn’t take advantage of the GI Bill, and he doesn’t use Veterans Affairs benefits or VA doctors, he said.
“This country owes me nothing,” Wasson said, his voice cracking and tears filling his eyes. “If I had it all to do over, I don’t think I would change one day.”
The real heroes, he said, are the men who lost their lives in World War II.
“We had 250 submarines in the Pacific and we lost 52 of them,” Wasson said. “And there’s still 3,500 guys on the bottom of the western Pacific.”
But his humility belies his life of service, both in and out of the military.
Wasson and his wife in 1956 opened a restaurant, the Mohawk in Rocky Hill, Conn.
With no children, the Wassons took in Gina’s sister and her two sons. Wasson proudly speaks of “the boys,” who he put through college. They’ve gone on to their own illustrious careers, one as a senior partner at a Wall Street law firm and the other spending 30 years with IBM.
The youngest, Wayne, now is 57 and lives in Texas. He sent Wasson a Build-a-Bear stuffed dog in a cap and gown to celebrate his graduation.
“My first graduation gift,” Wasson said Monday, beaming.
Over multiple conversations with The Palm Beach Post, Wasson joked about his lack of high school diploma.
He kept his restaurant open and profitable for 20 years: “I ran that thing with an eighth-grade education, for Christ’s sake!”
He made about $2 million selling the Mohawk: “Not bad for a high school dropout.”
Not jokes he can make anymore.
At least not in view of his high school diploma, which will hang in his kitchen.
“My mother would be pleased,” he said.
© 2019 The News-Journal, Daytona Beach, Fla.
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