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  1. The Education Gradebook

After 73 years, Jesuit High grad finally gets diploma

TAMPA

The U.S. Army drafted Frank Gonzalez five months before he was to graduate from Jesuit High School. That was in 1942, as World War II raged.

Late last month, Jesuit finally awarded Gonzalez his high school diploma, making him — at 92 — the oldest graduating senior in the school's history. "My papa always said, 'With patience and hard work you will obtain your goal,' '' Gonzalez joked.

In presenting the diploma at the school as Gonzalez' family looked on, Jesuit let slide the last five months of studies and exams, presumably deciding that the life lessons he learned as an anti-aircraft gunner on the war-torn island of Saipan were a suitable substitute.

The military would have let him finish high school, Gonzalez said, but his friends were all going early and he wanted to go, too.

As for the diploma, he never gave it much thought. He celebrated the news of Japan's surrender — 70 years ago this month — by downing weak, military-issued beer and sounding a long, celebratory blast of the Pacific isle's air-raid alarm. He was discharged in December of 1945 and, having taken correspondence courses, got a job teaching mechanical drawing for the sheet metal trade at Brewster Technical Institute.

He had married his girlfriend, Josephine Torres, on Dec. 7, 1943. It was the bride who chose Pearl Harbor day, said Patricia Orta, one of their two daughters.

"She figured that was the only way he was going to remember their anniversary.'' They were married nearly 71 years when she died last August.

Gonzalez spent his career as a metal worker, having had a hand in building such projects as the new Jesuit campus in the 1950s and Walt Disney World in the early 1970s. He retired at age 64, devoting much of his time to his club, Centro Asturiano, where he is a past president.

It was only recently that the diploma issue came up.

Gonzalez' great-grandson, 8-year-old Brian Rodriguez, has his heart set on being a Jesuit Tiger and a University of Florida Gator. Brian's great-grandpa showed him his Jesuit yearbook from long ago, and it got Orta thinking: she should surprise her dad with his diploma.

She talked to a Jesuit grad neighbor, and he got her in touch with Nick Suszynski, director of development for the school, who got the process started. But before they could make the presentation, another Jesuit grad heard about it and said to Gonzalez, "Hey, I hear you're getting a diploma.''

In honor of the patriarch's graduation, Brian gave him a Jesuit shirt and coffee mug. The family warned him not to go out partying all night afterward. They joked, too, that he could have a little time off before he had to go look for a job.

They actually had a rather subdued celebration.

"They took me out to dinner,'' Gonzalez said.

"And he paid,'' Orta said.

As for the diploma, Gonzalez plans to place it where he can gaze on it often.

"I'm going to put it next to the TV.''

Contact Philip Morgan at pmorgan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3435.

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