Lafayette oilman Paul Hilliard got what was due him last week — his high school diploma — 78 years after his classmates received theirs.
“I had to laugh,” Hilliard, 96, said upon receiving the paper document, which was sent to the corporate offices of Badger Oil Co. in Lafayette. “I must be smart. I’ve got two high school diplomas.”
The first diploma came courtesy of the U.S. Marines, for whom Hilliard served in World War II. A radioman/tailgunner on a Dauntless SBD bomber, he took part in the military campaign to free The Philippines three years after the Japanese had captured the island nation at the start of World War II.
He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with six bronze stars in WWII. He flew more than 45 combat missions in The Philippines.
Hilliard left Durand High School in rural Wisconsin at 17 to enlist, about three months short of his class’ graduation in 1943. He hitchhiked across the state to Milwaukee to sign up.
He later completed high school coursework and earned his first diploma through correspondence work in the Marines; because of that completed effort, Durand High later recognized him as a graduate of his 1943 class in his hometown. But he never received a Durand High diploma that reflected his graduate status.
Hilliard said he cherished his time as a student at Durand High — it had an enrollment of more than 300 then, and more than 400 now — and he made it to his 40th and 50th class reunions, the latter in 1993. That was the last time he visited the area where he grew up until this summer, when he visited Buffalo County, where he was born and raised until 11 years old on a subsistence farm, and Durand, where he attended the old junior high and the high school. He visited Durand from June 22-24.
On June 24, he spent about an hour at Durand High, touring the facility and visiting with high school personnel, including Principal Nick Gilles and Larry Weber of the Durand High Foundation. The high school shares the same basic footprint as when he attended Durand High in the late 1930s and early 1940s, although only a few areas from the old high school remain.
Gilles presented Hilliard, who serves on the board of the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, with a certificate of academic achievement and an academic letter for his time at Durand High. He accepted both gratefully but noted to Gilles that he had never received a Durand High diploma. After he had completed his short tour of the high school classrooms and the gym that morning, Gilles handed him the jacket for a high school diploma and said one would be sent to him.
Hilliard said Sunday that he would “absolutely” display the Durand High diploma.
“I’m going to frame it and hang it,” he said.
Following World War II, Hilliard, using the GI Bill, earned a law degree at the University of Texas and launched what has been a 70-year career in the oil and gas industry. That includes ownership of Badger Oil, located on Ambassador Caffery Parkway, which he founded in 1959 and named in honor of his home state.
His philanthropy has included donations to the Hilliard Art Museum on the University of Louisiana at Lafayette campus and to the National WWII Museum, one of the busiest tourism sites in America. Hilliard completed a term as chairman of the museum’s board of trustees at 95.
Ken Stickney, metro editor at The Acadiana Advocate, accompanied Paul and Madlyn Hilliard to Wisconsin in June. He is working on a biographical work about Hilliard funded by the Badger Education Foundation.
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