74 years after leaving school, World War II veteran gets diploma
By ELAYNE LOWE | The Santa Fe New Mexican | Published: August 25, 2018
SANTA FE, N.M. (Tribune News Service) — As the Santa Fe Indian School gymnasium began to fill early Friday morning, one face etched with age stood out.
Clemente Otero sat with his U.S. Army veteran baseball cap shading his eyes as the assembly around him rose with cheers and applause. Aided by his family, he stood up to don the maroon cap and gown that distinguishes a high school graduate.
A small smile crept across the 92-year-old's face as he strolled across the floor – finally attending the graduation ceremony World War II had denied him.
"It is with great respect, pride and honor that I present you, Mr. Clemente Otero, as part of the Santa Fe Indian School's graduating class of 2018," said Principal Faith Rosetta.
Joy and awe flooded the room as, 74 years after leaving SFIS, Otero finally received his high school diploma.
For the first time in its long history, the school hosted a graduation ceremony for a veteran who never received his diploma. More than 100 students from the Indian School were drafted during World War II, Rosetta said. She said the recognition was intended to celebrate Otero's service to his country but also was a way to acknowledge history.
"It's important for us to recognize our vets and recognize the sacrifice they made," Rosetta said.
Otero, from Santa Ana Pueblo, was drafted into the United States Army in 1944 and served as a private in a field artillery battalion in the European and Pacific theaters. He participated in the war in central Europe and the liberation of Germany, then was stationed in the southern Philippines for six months until Japan surrendered.
"I went through hardship day and night," Otero said.
The veteran stood quietly as his family and members of his pueblo gathered around him for photos. He didn't say much, but when he did, he made those around him laugh and smile. He joked with the governor of Santa Ana, Glenn Tenorio, about how they heated hamburgers during kitchen duty in the army by putting patties under their armpits.
He also pointed to all the cellphones pointed in his direction and joked, "I don't know how many cameras I broke today."
Otero said he originally didn't want such attention or anything more than a piece of paper in the mail. But in the end, he agreed to the celebration in order to help encourage the younger generation.
"I hope they keep up their schooling," he said. "I don't need [a diploma]. I already have a good life, a healthy life. ... They're the ones who need it."
Marvin Otero said his father changed his mind about attending this ceremony after he realized it was an opportunity to show students how anyone can persevere regardless of their age or their past.
"I said, 'Let's go,' " Marvin Otero said. " 'Just do it for you and for the students to give them strength to keep going.' "
Clemente Otero has five children, seven grandchildren, 10 great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandsons. After returning from the war, he worked in masonry, auto repair and house painting. He worked in the University of New Mexico's facilities department before retiring in 1998.
Growing up, Otero's children didn't know he had served in the military. His only daughter, Grace Baca, said he told her about his service 17 years ago when she mentioned how much information the Indian Health Service was providing for veterans.
"My mom never spoke about it and he never spoke about it," Baca said.
In June, Baca applied for her father's diploma through the Department of Veterans Affairs' Operation Recognition, which awards veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam high school diplomas. She said she wanted to do it to give her father the recognition.
"It's an honor for them," she said. "As old as he is, it's possible to do anything."
Rosetta said she received a request from the Department of Veterans Affairs for Otero's diploma, but decided to do more than just shuffle paperwork.
"He's just the perfect example of the mission of our school," Rosetta said. "It's made me want to reflect back."
The principal said she's considering honoring the other veterans who were drafted before graduating when the school holds its 2019 ceremony.
Otero is seen as a role model for the future as Santa Ana Pueblo tries to address education issues, Tenorio said.
"He's the start of the foundation to showing our children never to give up on what they want to succeed," he said. "However old you are, whatever you go through in life, this is how you succeed."
Two students from Santa Ana Pueblo presented Otero with a letterman's jacket as a gift from the Santa Fe Indian School student body. Kylee Montoya, a senior, and Alissa Narjo, a junior, said participating in the celebration was overwhelming.
"You don't see a lot of kids honoring their elders as they should be," Narjo said. "It felt good to represent one of my elders in a very special ceremony."
"Seeing him here getting his diploma was a great feeling," Montoya added. "It was great seeing him smile."
After the two-hour celebration, Otero shook hands with the students who will make up the 2019 graduating class. Praise and thanks were exchanged as Otero stood in his veteran's cap, greeting each student one by one.
Clemente Otero's kids say his photo – in a graduation cap and gown – is finally going up on the wall of his daughter's home, surrounded by the photos of his children and grandchildren holding their own diplomas.
And you know what? The camera didn't break.
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Clemente Otero is photographed wearing his service uniform. The World War II veteran was awarded his high school diploma on Friday, Aug. 24, 2018.
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