80 Years Later, Communities Rally to Present WWII POW With High School Diploma

"I made it."

Kevin Litterer never gets tired of talking about Donald J. Huisenga, the 98-year-old WWII veteran who came into his life via a phone call just two months ago.

Litterer, the principal of tiny East Sac High School in Lake View, Iowa, was in his office on November 18 when he heard the phone ring. He recalls his assistant answering it and jumping up. "Kevin, you need to speak to this person right now," she told him.

On the line was Tess Gooding, a medical social worker at the San Angelo Veterans Affairs Clinicin Texas. She was calling about Huisenga, a new patient of hers, and hoped Litterer could help her fulfill a wish 80 years in the making.

Gooding explained that during her initial assessment, Huisenga disclosed that he hadn't graduated high school. He was supposed to receive a diploma from Auburn High School (now East Sac High School) in 1943. Three months before he was set to walk across the stage, however, he was drafted into the Army.

Huisenga was injured in artillery fire after participating in the Normandy Invasion. Two weeks later, he found himself in a German prisoner of war camp where he was held for six months. Huisenga left the Army in 1945, got married, had children, and ultimately moved to Texas. But he was always haunted by the high school diploma he never got.

Donald J. Huisenga
Beth Litterer

"He was telling me about his time as a prisoner of war, at which point he mentioned that he had never graduated high school," Gooding told San Angelo Standard-Times. "And so, I thought, 'You know, I'll just reach out to the high school back in Iowa.' I'm originally from the area. Worst case scenario, they'll say no."

But the worst-case scenario didn't happen.

"I said yes, absolutely," recalls Litterer.

Donald J. Huisenga Diploma
Beth Litterer

Litterer immediately reached out to Jostens, the company that provides East Sac High School with yearbooks, diplomas, class rings, and other memorabilia. With help from school officials, he was able to locate old copies of Auburn High School graduation materials to help them replicate a Class of 1943 diploma. In two hours, he had everything he needed.

Four days later, trustees with the East Sac County School Board of Education voted unanimously to name Huisenga a graduate of Auburn High School.

Earlier this month, Litterer and his wife drove from Iowa to San Angelo so he could award Huisenga the diploma himself during a special ceremony at the San Angelo Veterans Affairs Clinic on January 5.

Donald J. Huisenga Diploma
Beth Litterer

"I made it," Huisenga told San Angelo Standard-Times. "I always hoped that I would get a diploma. I am pleased as punch. I'm so pleased, I couldn't be any more pleased."

After the ceremony, Huisenga invited Litterer to his home to show him where he planned to display the diploma: in a bookcase right next to the television.

"Every time I watch TV, I'm going to look at that diploma," Litterer recalls him saying.

Huisenga even invited Litterer and his wife to celebrate his 100th birthday on September 20, 2023.

"He is just so amazing to me. His outlook on life," Litterer says of his new friend. "And for me, as a high school principal, next time a kid says they're thinking about dropping out of high school I will show them a picture of Donald so they can see how much it means."

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