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Youngwood veteran officially joins the Class of 1945

Renatta Signorini
| Thursday, May 21, 2015, 4:26 p.m.
Donald R. Walko, 88, officially became a member of the Class of 1945 thanks to a diploma, blue graduation cap and tassel issued this month by Hempfield Area School District. Family members held a surprise graduation ceremony for the longtime Hempfield Township resident in his room at Vincentian Home in Allegheny County’s North Hills.
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Donald R. Walko, 88, officially became a member of the Class of 1945 thanks to a diploma, blue graduation cap and tassel issued this month by Hempfield Area School District. Family members held a surprise graduation ceremony for the longtime Hempfield Township resident in his room at Vincentian Home in Allegheny County’s North Hills.

There was never a high school diploma with Donald R. Walko's name on it.

In 1944, Walko decided to leave what was then Youngwood High School to join the Navy during World War II and never finished his senior year, according to his family members.

“To me, he was always an educated, well-spoken person, despite not having a high school diploma,” said his daughter Donna Marie Hay of Ligonier Township.

The 88-year-old officially became a member of the Class of 1945 on May 9, thanks to a diploma, blue graduation cap and tassel issued this month by Hempfield Area School District, which absorbed Youngwood students when the school closed in 1956. Family members held a surprise graduation ceremony for the longtime Hempfield resident in his room at Vincentian Home in Allegheny County's North Hills.

Daughter-in-law Julie Jarbeck Walko secured the diploma through a state program called Operation Recognition. Walko grinned when he saw what the pomp and circumstance was all about, recalled Jarbeck Walko of Ohio Township.

“That's beautiful,'” he said, according to Jarbeck Walko.

Operation Recognition provides legislation for veterans of World War II, the Korean Conflict and the Vietnam War to receive diplomas if they left high school prior to graduation to serve in the military.

“There were a lot of people in that situation,” said Walko's son Donald R. Walko Jr., a judge in Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas. “He gave up high school to go on to the war, which was a noble thing.”

Walko left high school in 1944 and was stationed along the East Coast with the Navy. He was honorably discharged in July 1946 as a seaman second class.

Afterward, he worked for 38 years at ITE of South Greensburg and retired as a blacksmith, Walko Jr. said. Walko was heavily involved with the South Greensburg American Legion and has participated with the group's Honor Guard at hundreds of military funerals, his son said.

Not having his high school diploma wasn't something Walko regularly talked about to her but that didn't make it any less important to honor a man who left school to serve his country, Jarbeck Walko said. The diploma came through from Hempfield Area officials quickly, she said.

“The focus is never on (veterans) and they're OK with that,” Jarbeck Walko said. “We wanted that moment where the focus was on him.”

A commitment to military service is something that rubbed off on grandson Nathaniel Walko, who hopes to attend the Coast Guard or Naval academy after high school.

The small, emotional graduation ceremony attended by a few family members was a touching tribute to take part in, family members agreed.

“It was intimate,” Hay said. “It was just us.”

“I think it was meaningful to have it on paper,” she said. “I'm glad that he finally had the recognition.”

Renatta Signorini is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-837-5374 or rsignorini@tribweb.com.

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