It’s been 72 years since Shimer Bruce Berkey, 89, left Richland High School to serve in the U.S. Army in 1949.
But Wednesday, he finally received his diploma.
During a small, socially distanced ceremony held at the Richland Performing Arts Center, the Korean War veteran received all the pomp and circumstance of a traditional gathering.
That included everything from a commencement program and singing of the alma mater to Berkey — who was wearing a red graduation gown.
Berkey was surprised by how elaborate the event was.
“The whole program was unbelievable,” he said.
Berkey knew he was getting his diploma, but was unaware of the extent of the school’s plans.
“There’s hardly words to say what that was like,” he said. “It was a real surprise for me.”
Berkey’s daughter, Karen Metzger, who attended the event, agreed.
“They really went well beyond anything we expected them to do,” Metzger said. “It is amazing.”
Left school to serve
Berkey was eligible to receive this honor because of a section of the Pennsylvania schools code that permits districts to create an “Operation Recognition” program — which allows school boards to confer a diploma to any honorably discharged military member who served in World War II, the Korean War or Vietnam War but didn’t graduate because of enlistment.
Superintendent Arnold Nadonley, high school Principal Timothy Regan and Assistant Principal Mark Mosorjak took turns speaking.
“It is my sincere pleasure to welcome Shimer back to his alma mater to receive his long-awaited and well-deserved high school diploma under ‘Operation Recognition,'” Nadonley said.
Ray McCombie, board president, and Nadonley presented Berkey with his diploma and class pin.
Berkey left the area all those years ago because he wanted to join the military, but his parents wouldn’t sign off on it, Metzger said.
When he turned 18, Berkey didn’t need their signature anymore. So one morning he went to the recruitment office instead of school and soon after was on his way to basic training.
During his service in Korea as an artillery observer, Berkey became a prisoner of war.
He was also wounded five times and received a Purple Heart for each occasion.
After the war, Berkey returned to Fort Benning, Georgia, where he was to teach officers and decided to sign up for officer candidacy to continue his career in the service.
However, he was turned down for the role because he didn’t have a high school diploma.
He received his GED in 1951, and left the military the next year.
After returning to the area, Berkey made a living selling and constructing dairy barns before taking a job as a farmhand.
He then served as the manager of the Winston Corp. farms in State College, where he finished out his working life.
Nadonley described Berkey’s service as “an amazing story of bravery and dedication to our nation.”
“We are all so thankful for your service,” he said.
Wednesday’s ceremony held a special meaning for Nadonley, because Berkey would have graduated with his father in 1949.
It was also meaningful because in 32 years of education, he’s never had the chance to participate in an “Operation Recognition” event.
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