WWII veteran receives honorary high school diploma
By ASHLEY STALNECKER | The Morning Call | Published: June 28, 2019
ALLENTOWN, Pa. (Tribune News Service) — Nov. 12, 1944 was an important day for Peter Yanakis. It was his birthday but it was also the day his life changed. He was notified that he would be drafted into the Army, months before he would graduate high school.
Yanakis wasn’t too worried — he knew the Army needed men, but he never forgot the milestone he missed. He served two years in the Army before being honorably discharged.
His granddaughter Jackie Katz and daughter Eleni Katz wanted to make Yanakis a graduate 74 years after his missed opportunity. They called Newtown High School in Elmhurt, New York, and secured his high school diploma with the date of his original graduation — June 26, 1945. Eleni presented the diploma to him Thursday, in front of his new “family" — the residents of Whitehall Manor.
His son-in-law, Jeff Katz, flew in from Chicago just 18 minutes before the ceremony.
Yanakis had no clue about the ceremony, even when he was seated in front of a table with his diploma and a balloon reading “Congrats Grad." When the 92-year-old realized he was finally graduating, a smile lit up his face.
“When you’re 16, you don’t think of anything but graduating,” Yanakis said.
Tears welled up in his eyes as he spoke about his time in the war. He said receiving the diploma made him “very emotional.” His grandchildren put together a binder of his important war documents and photos he took with his personal camera.
Yanakis married his wife, Mary, in February 1952 after meeting her at a Greek dance in Manhattan. They were married for more than 60 years. They were living together in Whitehall Manor until Mary died a couple months ago. Yanakis has been sad since Mary’s death, Eleni said, but getting his diploma would cheer him up.
“They did everything together,” Eleni said.
He worked at the New York Telephone Company and before that at American Airlines.
After retiring at 65, Yanakis and Mary spent 20 years traveling back and forth from their homes in New York and Florida.
He moved to Whitehall Manor to be closer to his daughter, Eleni. For the last five years, he spent most of his time socializing with other residents and learning as much as he can.
For someone so interested in learning, his granddaughter, Jackie, thought he deserved to finally get that high school diploma.
“He loves learning so much,” she said. “It didn’t seem fair that someone with that willingness to learn and curiosity didn’t get to finish high school.”
When Eleni asked his high school for the diploma, the assistant principal had it ready within two weeks. The school was happy to help with surprising the World War II veteran.
“I hope it gives him a sense of accomplishment,” Jackie said. “Hopefully, he’ll have some kind of peace with getting an education for all that he did with his service.”
Graduates often leave their high school diploma on a shelf as they go off to college or find a good job. What will Yanakis do?
“He’ll stare at it all the time,” Eleni said.