Ron Cardenas left Erie High School his junior year, joining the U.S. Marines in 1963 and deploying to serve in the Vietnam War.
Though he earned his remaining graduation credits while in the military, the school principal at the time denied his request to receive a diploma when he returned. He and his wife, Dolores, went on to become lifelong Erie High advocates, supporting the school as parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. Cardenas also volunteered his time as an Erie High football, baseball and wrestling coach.
Friday, Erie High presented him with an official diploma in a ceremony in the school auditorium, 58 years later. The ceremony ended with a standing ovation.
“It has been a very special day for me,” Cardenas said.
Erie High Principal Matt Buchler said he first learned Cardenas hadn’t received his diploma a couple of years ago, but his plans for a ceremony were scuttled by the pandemic. He restarted the plans in December.
“He’s kind of an icon here,” Buchler said.
At Friday’s ceremony, school board member Meosha Brooks presented the diploma before an audience of family members, friends and current students. Cardenas also received the “athlete of the year” award to honor his high school athletic career.
Buchler said the couple continue to support the school by attending most home games, joking that the voice you hear yelling at the referee to reconsider a call likely belongs to Cardenas.
Cardenas said discrimination was rampant in Erie when he attended high school, with white students supported if they struggled academically while Hispanic students were counseled to drop out.
He watched a friend get expelled for leaning down near two white girls to retrieve a pencil. School administrators accused his friend of trying to look up their skirts — a claim the girls denied, he said. An argument he had with a coach over what he called an unfair cancellation of a football game, resulting in the coach threatening to paddle him, was enough to push him to drop out.
He said he had wanted to become a Marine since elementary school.
He described the two weeks of boot camp as “pure hell,” saying he wondered what he had gotten himself into. After another year and a half of training, he celebrated his 19th birthday on a ship to Da Nang, Vietnam.
He spent about three months in Vietnam before he was seriously injured during an ambush. He was taken to a military hospital in California to recover before returning to Erie to his parents and his wife, who was eight months pregnant. Only two of the 26 Marines in the ambush were uninjured, while 15 died. Cardenas ended up losing an eye.
As a young 19-year-old, he said, he saw “things that would make you sick” and still has flashbacks.
Though he didn’t attend college, his children and grandchildren have gone on to earn college degrees and become successful, he said. He encouraged the high school students in attendance to strive for excellence.
“You reach up and grab that star, and you let that star take you as far as you can,” he said.
Though his own school experience was challenging, he said, he loves the town and Erie High.
“Erie is mine,” he said. “Erie is me.”
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