Veteran, 78, to receive high school diploma
Santa Cruz Sentinel, Calif.
WATSONVILLE, Calif. — Hundreds of Watsonville High School graduates will be donning caps and gowns and walking across the stage at Geiser Field on Friday to pick up their much anticipated diplomas.
Joseph Robert “J.R.” Blinkenberg will be walking with them. His wait for a diploma has been six decades longer.
Blinkenberg, a Soquel resident, enlisted in the Navy during the Korean War and failed to finish his last class at Watsonville High School in 1951. Though he never earned a diploma, the 78-year-old found success in a career with Southern Pacific, and perhaps even more so, contributing to his community, particularly in his support of Soquel High School's softball team.
Friday, his honorary diploma will recognize a life of accomplishment and giving.
“All the work I've done, especially since I retired, has been for the betterment of the community, the betterment of kids so they'll have someone they can depend on,” Blinkenberg said. “It's rewarding.”
Blinkenberg, a native of Page, N.D., moved to Watsonville with his family when he was a sophomore in high school. He did pretty well, he said, except for government, a prerequisite to graduate. He didn't get along with his teacher, who “loaded us down” with homework, and he had no interest in the class. He had more important things to worry about. His father worked as a house painter with his uncle to support Blinkenberg and his six siblings. Money was tight. Blinkenberg said he worked at a Corralitos chicken ranch shoveling manure for 50 cents an hour after school to help out. Toward the end of his senior year, some friends urged him to leave school and join the Navy. With the Korean War less than a year old, it seemed like a good idea so off they went to Santa Cruz to enlist.
But the Navy sent Blinkenberg to San Diego, where Navy doctors discovered he had fractured his skull as a toddler and rejected him. He returned to Watsonville, but by then school had ended for the year and the possibility of graduating with his class, missed.
Blinkenberg went to work for his uncle as a house painter. Eighteen months later, he received a letter that started, “Greetings and Salutations from the U.S. Army.” Blinkenberg had been drafted, the Army unconcerned about the small hole in his head. By the time, his military service was over, he was married with a small son. Other veterans went back to school, Blinkenberg said.
“I had to get a job,” he said. “I had a wife and baby.”
Blinkenberg spent 41 years working for Southern Pacific, working his way up from switchman to assistant trainmaster, helping oversee 500 employees and a $20 million budget in a region that ran from San Jose to San Luis Obispo. and eventually, to operating officer, traveling throughout the west training and testing railroad workers.
A softball pitcher as a youth and young man, he also became involved with youth softball and basketball teams.
A wall in his home is covered with mementos and expressions of gratitude from softball and basketball teams at Soquel High and Cabrillo College. On shelves below are stacks of clippings showcasing Soquel's Knights, “my kids,” he said.
Blinkenberg said he didn't seek out a diploma, but he is pleased Watsonville High School Principal Elaine Legorreta decided to honor him.
“I never had the thrill of graduating,” he said.
But Blinkenberg missed little else in life. As he talked about his sons, his grandchildren, his late wife, the clubs he's belonged to, the teams he's coached, the friends he's made, Blinkenberg came across as a man who's already been rewarded in life.
“I have a strange philosophy," he said. “When I die, I don't want one enemy on this planet. I want everybody to be my friend.”