“After 75 years, I have graduated.”
That’s what 94-year-old Kenneth Ritz said about receiving his high school diploma earlier this month from Seymour High School Principal Greg Prange.
Ritz lives in Columbus and recently celebrated his birthday. He was one of the class members who left to serve in the military during high school.
[sc:text-divider text-divider-title=”Story continues below gallery” ]
“I joined the Navy when I was 17 years old between my junior and senior year of high school,” Ritz said. “I would’ve been drafted my senior year, but I had two brothers in the service, and so figured I’d go ahead.”
Before he left high school to serve the country, Ritz was a member of the high school track team, in which he lettered.
Ritz served in the military for three years, and at the time, he was thinking more about what the Navy was like rather than thinking of high school graduation, he said.
In March 1944, he was among 13 boys at Shields High School who took a qualifying exam for Army-Navy college training programs, which would enable those who were accepted to get a certain amount of college training before being called to active service.
Ritz said when he was in the Navy, he took a course and was told all he would need to do was take the paperwork from that class back to his high school to get his diploma.
“I took the paperwork to the dean of boys at Shields High School,” Ritz said. “He didn’t know anything about it, but I guess I should’ve gone back again.”
On Oct. 20, Ritz heard a knock at his front door. It was Prange with not one but two diplomas to present to Ritz.
Lloyd Howard, Ritz’s classmate who lives in Arizona, made the suggestion to see if it would be possible for Ritz to still receive his diploma.
“Superintendent (Brandon) Harpe notified me and asked if we could help award a diploma in this case,” Prange said. “Mr. Ritz turned in paperwork years ago, and I guess someone dropped the ball.”
Prange said even though he’s not an artist, he created a Shields diploma for Class of 1945.
“I also had Sonja (Followell) create a current diploma so we could award it in a purple case, as is in the picture,” Prange said. “I have received two such requests in 21 years, and both were veterans who entered the military prior to graduating from high school.”
Prange said he created two diplomas for Ritz — one from Seymour Shields High School Class of 1945 and a modern one they use with the diploma cover.
“I knocked on the door, and he answered. We visited for a few minutes, and I gave him his diplomas,” Prange said. “I thanked him for his service and declared him a graduate of Seymour Shields High School.”
It was hard for Prange to describe how he felt to be a part of that experience.
“Words are hard to explain the feeling. Humbled. Honored. Grateful. These come to mind,” he said. “Of course, I thanked him for his service and sacrifice, and the look in his eyes told me we had really done something special for him.”
Prange told Ritz he personally knew some of his classmates.
“He told me that he never thought this would happen, and I’m glad I could be a part of it,” Prange said. “My nephew is in the Navy, my stepson-in-law was a Marine and my stepfather was a World War II Army vet. I am thankful for their service.”
Ritz said he didn’t know what to say when Prange showed up because he was completely surprised.
“He said the superintendent called him and said they had a job for him,” Ritz said. “I’ve got two diplomas now, and probably not too many other people could say that, especially not after 75 years.”
Ritz has three living children: Joyce Dempsey, who lives in Hope; Martha Napier, who lives in Azalea; and Kenneth Ritz Jr., who is in Florida.
After Prange’s visit, Ritz called Dempsey to tell her the news. She said her dad was elated to have his diploma after all of these years.
“He called me after it happened and was pretty excited about that,” Dempsey said. “Of course, I called all of his grandkids, and they are excited, too, and we’ll probably have a little graduation party for him.”
It made Ritz feel proud and happy to finally get his diploma.
“I remember my mother telling me that if I joined the Navy, I wouldn’t get a diploma, and she wanted me to get one,” Ritz said. “So I did think of that when I was holding my diploma.”