Lou Schipper left high school before graduation to enlist in World War II. Seventy years later, he returned to get his diploma. HUMANKIND
CINCINNATI -- For Lou Schipper, walking to school uphill both ways would have been an improvement. In the 1940s, he walked about a mile from his Aurora, Indiana home to catch a train to Cincinnati every day to attend St. Xavier High School.
"If he had a nickel left, he could catch the bus from Union Terminal to St. Xavier High School," said Dottie Schipper, Lou Schipper's wife of 58 years.
On Friday, St. Xavier High School honored the 90-year-old Schipper with his high school diploma, more than 70 years after he would have graduated.
But Schipper didn't graduate. It wasn't the long commute that cut his education short, it was World War II. He set his mind to enlisting. He was only 17, and said on Friday that he couldn't remember how he convinced his mother to let him leave.
"I had my mind made up I was going," Schipper said.
Schipper joined the Navy "Seabees," the United States Naval Construction Forces, where he served until his discharge in October 1946.
"I can still see the log I got behind when I got off the troop carrier," he said. "I can still see that thing. I think I could draw it. It saved my life."
Schipper said by the time he was ready to deploy the war in Europe was winding down, so he was sent to the Pacific Theater. He serviced aircraft, transported equipment and weapons, and built airstrips and highways.
"The Marines had a sign on the side of the road that said, 'When we march into Tokyo, it will be on the road that the Seabees built,'" Schipper said.
After returning stateside, Schipper became an electrician. It was a time when a diploma wasn't so important. Especially with Schipper's talents.
"Lou is next to a genius. He can do anything," Dottie Schipper said.
He retired from Seagrams Distillery in Lawrenceburg in 1984. When he wasn't working, Schipper built cars from on Model T frames and reconstructed a bus from timber from his family's farm.
It wasn't until recently Schipper was reunited with his former classmate, George Wood, and his wife learned that veterans could get high school diplomas, that the chance of "graduating" became a possibility.
Schipper left an impression on Wood in high school that never left him. So much so that he began asking other classmates about him about two years ago, leading them to meet up.
"He was the only freshman in the class who was interviewed with callouses on his hands because that farm boy knew how to do a day's work," Wood laughed. "We were comfortable high school kids sitting on our you-know-whats, when he was fighting the war over there in the Pacific."
It was Wood who brought Schipper to the attention of St. Xavier High School officials, who were excited to honor him.
At first, Schipper was reluctant, his wife said.
"He said, 'What the hell do I need with a diploma? I'm 90 years old. Do you want me to get a resume and go to work now?'" Dottie Schipper joked. "He didn't act like he was really excited, but he was really excited."
When it came time to actually hand over the diploma to Schipper in the community room of the Pristine Senior Living and Post-Acute Care of Cincinnati Three Rivers facility, St. Xavier Vice President of Advancement Tony Schad had trouble making the speech.
"Mr. Louis Schipper, on behalf of your classmates from St. Xavier High School class of 1946, the faculty, staff and administration," Schad said, choking back tears, "I'm happy to officially welcome you to the long blue line, St. X."
Schad said Schipper represents all the best things about the school.
"I really appreciate it," Schipper said. "I never thought I'd make it."