On this Veterans Day, feeling like a teen again at 80

A little more than 60 years ago, John Frederick Millard was a member of the Class of 1948 at Liberty High School.

But Millard, who goes by the name Fred, never graduated. He left school a few weeks early to join the U.S. Navy.

On Friday, in a crisp, cool wind on Veterans Day, the school district, along with the state of Missouri, honored Millard for his service to the country by giving him honorary diplomas. The presentation at Liberty North High School was part of the district’s holiday flag raising ceremony.

Millard said the gesture made him feel like a teenager again. “All except for the worn body,” he added.

“It is something I never thought would really happen,” said Millard, 80, of Grain Valley. “I am really proud. ... I think this beats getting it at the regular time.

“I missed out on that and I’ve been sorry.”

Dallas Ackerman, the district’s director of communications, said it’s important to recognize people who make sacrifices like Millard did.

“It is a great opportunity for us as a district to reflect and respect all of those who have served,” he said.

Millard said he felt compelled to leave school early because he knew things were heating up in Korea and he wanted to serve his country. He wanted a choice of which military branch he would serve in. He didn’t want to be in the Army.

So at the age of 17, after convincing his mother to sign his enlistment papers, Millard joined the Navy. He became a teletype operator and was stationed out of Norfolk, Va.

He served on the U.S.S. Missouri twice, once on the U.S.S. Roosevelt and once on the U.S.S. Leyte. The rest of the time he was on shore duty.

“We went to the Arctic Circle twice and went down across the equator once and went to the Mediterranean,” he said. “I really enjoyed my four years in there. I had it easy.”

He met his wife, Rita, on Christmas Day in 1950 while he was returning from leave on a Greyhound bus.

“I sat beside her and woke up and had my head in her lap,” he said. “She wouldn’t tell me her home address but she told me where she worked.”

A month later, he wrote her, which led to them corresponding for two years. He said they dated once before they got married.

“We will be married 60 years next August,” he said. They have four children along with grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Millard’s enlistment was originally to last three years, and by then he was ready to get out. But within eight days of his discharge date, his term was extended a year because of the Korean War.

“I was a little teed off,” Millard said.

After he was discharged from the Navy, Millard said he never thought of returning to get his diploma until a few years later when he needed one. He earned a GED and used that instead of the diploma.

“This means all the world to me,” Millard, a retired mail carrier, said of the honorary diplomas.

Tim Coulter of Plattsburg, Mo., who is the service officer for the Third District of the Missouri American Legion, said getting veterans their diplomas is a great way to honor them.

Millard is the 48th veteran whom Coulter has helped get his diploma.

“It is amazing how you see these 70-, 80-year-old gentleman — they almost revert to a 17- or 18-year-old kid,” Coulter said. “They take it with great pride. It is something they always wanted.”

In many cases, Coulter said, when service members got out, they were eager to start a family. “Many of them got married within three to six months. There was no incentive for them to go back. ... They just went on with their lives.”

Millard’s daughter, Tina Schaffer of Independence, wanted to see her dad receive his diploma.

“Whatever makes my father happy makes me happy,” she said. “I think it kind of surprised him when he found out it was going to happen.”

Millard said he had trouble getting to sleep Thursday night and had to rely on his wife to wake him Friday morning.

“I was so nervous, I couldn’t even get my tie on,” Millard said. “I wasn’t used to a tie in the Navy anyway.”

His diplomas, he said, are “something that I can frame and look at every day.”

He plans to do just that.