When Jack Fleury and his five best buddies cut through the Michigan ice and started pulling up bluegill and perch, life didn't get much better. Same for the warmer months, when they traded fishing poles for shotguns and headed back to the woods.
But war broke up the boys. They couldn't wait to join the fight, even if it meant lying about their age. Jack tried it and got caught, but soon enough he would turn 17 and enlist in the Navy. School would have to wait.
And wait. And wait.
Six decades later, on July 3, Jack Fleury stepped gingerly to the curb outside his home in Holiday, pulled open the mailbox decorated with an old Michigan license plate, and curiously fingered a package with a return address from his former hometown. He hadn't many reasons to smile in recent years, having endured stomach cancer and heart surgery, but as the contents of the package fell into his lap, he could hardly contain his joy.
"I felt jubilant," he said. "After all these years, I can't tell you how good this makes me feel. My wife has done so much for me."
Mary-Jane Fleury, who on Nov. 15 will celebrate a half-century with her husband, read recently about Operation Recognition, which has been providing high school diplomas to veterans who left high school to join the service in World War II. She knew how much Jack valued education and that he had been an A-B student, so she wrote to the Flint, Mich., school district and asked for his diploma.
It arrived just in time for Independence Day, proclaiming Jack as a 1944 graduate of Northern Community High School.
"I wanted to present it to Jack," Mrs. Fleury said, "but the old guy beat me to the mailbox."
By telling this story, she hoped to highlight the diploma program so others might experience the same thrill.
Jack Fleury's generation is fast disappearing, some say at the rate of 1,000 a day. His five best buddies from boyhood, while they survived the war, have since died. A grateful nation has been rushing to honor those who remain, and the diploma idea was a natural. Hundreds of families have applied for them, and many have been awarded posthumously.
Mrs. Fleury's gesture was just one more expression of love that produced five children and several grandchildren. But their relationship didn't start out with much grace or emotion _ unless you count pain.
"He fell for me, you could say," Mrs. Fleury recalled.
In early 1952, after Jack had returned from the South Pacific and purchased a gas station on Mason and Wood streets in Flint, Mary-Jane walked across from her parents' house to get a soda from a vending machine. Jack was atop a ladder as he watched the attractive teenager below.
"I was lucky," he said. "I didn't get hurt."
It took awhile for Mary-Jane to get interested in the red-haired, freckled man who was 10 years older. And when she did, her Irish mom once took a broom and chased him down the street.
"In time," Mrs. Fleury said, "he became her favorite son-in-law."
Jack eventually carved out a career with a wholesale grocery company and they moved to Florida in 1984. He worked briefly for Hood's orange juice company in Dunedin, while Mary-Jane spent 15 years with Winn-Dixie near their home.
"We're not much different than most people, I suppose," Jack offered. "We worked hard, served our country and raised a good family."
And today, finally, he is a certified graduate of the Class of '44.
Good people, good news.
_ Pasco Times editor Bill Stevens can be reached at (727) 869-6250 or by e-mail at stevenssptimes.com.