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It's never too late to graduate for this 96-year-old World War II veteran

By SHELBY PEREA | Albuquerque Journal, N.M. | Published: January 15, 2021

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (Tribune News Service) — There was as much pomp as there could be given the circumstance.

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic and safety restrictions that required an intimate ceremony, World War II veteran Orlando Samuel Romero proudly received his high school diploma on Thursday at the age of 96.

Socially distanced in the Robert F. Kennedy Charter School gymnasium, the event held just for Romero allowed him to experience the classic graduation moments he'd missed up until now. The graduation march rang out as he walked in a cap and gown, turned his tassel and officially received his diploma.

It's been a long time coming for the New Mexico native, who was unable to finish his time at Albuquerque High School because he was drafted into the service when he was 18 years old.

Principal Shawn Morris told the Journal that Romero was a Navy Seaman First Class in the South Pacific.

Romero said part of his work was translating letters from Spanish to English.

After his time in the service, Romero said he did various work, including janitorial and furniture making. His main focus was taking care of his family when he got back and school wasn't top of mind.

"First things first," he said.

But through Operation Recognition, a program that grants certain veterans their high school diplomas, Romero was able to achieve the milestone.

"American veterans sacrificed so much to protect our freedom. For many of those who served in their youth that includes the chance to receive a high school diploma ... It is a belated gesture of our lasting respect and appreciation for their service and commitment to our nation," Robert F. Kennedy Charter School director Robert Baade said during the ceremony.

That's why the school was honored to make sure Romero got his diploma.

Baade told the Journal that Romero had to meet eligibility requirements and fill out paperwork for the New Mexico Department of Veterans Services to be granted the honor.

While Romero didn't get his diploma in the traditional way, Baade said it was still definitely earned.

Thursday's ceremony also created an opportunity for Romero's loved ones to celebrate with him, like his honorary granddaughter April Gallegos, who was there cheering him on, beaming with pride for Romero.

It's an inspiration that is mutual.

When asked why he wanted to receive his diploma after all this time, Romero pointed to Gallegos as a major factor.

As for advice for the younger generation, the devout Catholic said what he's learned over the years is it's important to "do the best you can to help anyone who needs it."

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