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Amid thunderous applause, WWII veteran receives long-awaited diploma

Charles Waters took a little longer than his classmates to get his diploma.

About 71 years longer.

He has a good excuse: He left school in 1943 to join the Navy and fight in World War II. His mom was supposed to pick it up for him, but she got sick and missed the ceremony.

In the years since, Waters went on to marry and raise seven children, all while serving in the Coast Guard, Air Force and Army, too.

On Thursday, Waters finally got that diploma.

Amid a sea of graduating seniors from Liberty High School in Poinciana, Florida, Waters proceeded down the red carpet on his electric scooter. The school's Junior ROTC cadets lined the route, and representatives of the Army, Marines and Coast Guard saluted as he passed.

The diploma is from Martha's Vineyard Regional High School in Waters' native Massachusetts. But Liberty Principal Richard Studly also named Waters, a Poinciana resident, an honorary Liberty grad.

"I'm overwhelmed," said the 88-year-old. He was moved to tears as he received the diploma — and a thunderous standing ovation — from the assembled graduates, faculty and families. Shouts of "hero" rang out from the stands.

In remarks to the crowd, Waters paid tribute to veterans of his era and those who serve today.

He thought he was on hand just to represent World War II veterans. The diploma was a secret, part of a scheme hatched by Cathy Haynes, a local veterans advocate, who got in touch with the Osceola School District. Waters' 73-year-old wife, Ruth, kept her husband in the dark to preserve the surprise.

"I've been lying like a rug for weeks," she said with a laugh.

The couple married for 36 years have 11 children between them, seven from his first marriage and four from hers. Combined, they have 29 grandchildren and 36 great-grandchildren (with No. 37 due next month). Coincidentally, a great-granddaughter was receiving her diploma the very same day in Tampa.

The servicemembers on hand to honor Waters were awed by his years of service in four different branches.

"It's unheard of," said Petty Officer 1st Class Nick Scheck of the Coast Guard.

"It's great; he's a real patriot," added Sgt. Kenneth Townson of the Marine Corps, the only branch in which Waters did not serve.

Waters lied about his age to get into the Navy at 17. He said he chose that branch because his father and grandfather had been Navy men. Waters next decided to enter the Coast Guard, in part for a more practical reason.

"I couldn't find a job," he said. "The military was a good situation to continue my education and serve my country."

After a stint in the Air Force, Waters enlisted in the Army. His goal was to reach 30 years of combined service, he said, thereby outdoing his grandfather. But a truck crash left him with a serious leg injury, ending his career. He retired from the Army in 1967 as a staff sergeant.

When asked how he'd celebrate his long-awaited diploma, Waters was ready with a diplomatic answer.

"I think I'm just going to leave that up to my wife," he said. "Whatever she wants to do, we'll do."

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