NEW PORT RICHEY — It has been six decades since Milton Stevenson sat in a Gulf High School classroom, trying his hand at grammar and arithmetic.
He dropped out as a freshman and fudged his age to join the U.S. Navy during World War II. The call to service was, for him, louder than the call to math class.
But this week, at 83 years old with a couple careers under his belt, Stevenson came back for his diploma.
"It's a milestone in anyone's life," Stevenson, with several admiring family members in tow, said Thursday before adult graduation ceremonies at River Ridge High School.
During the war, he was sent to Okinawa, Japan, where he built runways and roads, as well as water purification facilities for Marines and soldiers coming back from front lines.
After the war, he enrolled in beauty school and worked for a time doing "whatever ladies get done in beauty shops."
Next up: woodworking.
"I learned that," he said. "Very good at it."
He managed two million-dollar carpentry businesses for other people, he said, then struck out on his own.
After 22 years, this high school dropout called it a career.
"Not getting a high school education, it did hinder me because there were a lot of things I would have learned," said Stevenson, who now lives in Fort White, about 30 miles northwest of Gainesville. "But as far as not being able to advance up in the ranks of business, why, I was very fortunate. I think the Lord has helped me out very well."
Old fashioned self-motivation helped, too.
"I see people that didn't have a high school education and they never were able to accomplish anything. They were just ordinary common laborers," he said. "I just thought there was just a little bit more in life than that. My sights were just a little bit higher than to go out and dig ditches."
Now this could-a-been ditch digger finally has the high school diploma he never got, doesn't need now but also doesn't mind having.
It came about after his wife, Myrtice, and their daughters saw a television report of an elderly man graduating with his grandson. They saw to it that Stevenson received a diploma from the Department of Education under a 2004 law that made it easier for veterans to get the credential if they left school to serve their country. Veterans have to show proof of service and school enrollment.
But the one he got from the state didn't mention his alma mater.
So Thursday evening, Stevenson joined about 60 other graduates from Pasco's adult education program. Some of them were teenagers who were a few credits short of graduating with their classes. Others were picking up a GED.
Gulf High principal Steve Knobl was on hand to personally bestow the diploma, medallion and lapel pin on Stevenson, who donned a cap and gown for the occasion.
"Everybody at the graduation has a special story. It always happens at graduation — stories of how they came about," said Thomas Brochu, assistant principal at Marchman Technical Education Center. "It's just an honor to award it to him."
Molly Moorhead can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6245.