Never too late: BH resident gets high school diploma on 90th birthday

Richard Joseph, 90, from Benton Harbor, receives his high school diploma during the Benton Harbor High School graduation ceremony last Friday. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

Richard Joseph, 90, from Benton Harbor, receives his high school diploma during the Benton Harbor High School graduation ceremony last Friday. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON HARBOR — Dressed in the traditional black cap and gown, Richard Joseph was a sight to behold at Benton Harbor High School’s graduation ceremony last Friday.

Joseph, 90, is a World War II veteran. He has lived in Benton Harbor since 1948 and has eight children – who all graduated high school before their father.

Joseph found a special way to celebrate his birthday Friday by finally receiving his high school diploma after spending more than seven decades outside a classroom.

The effort to earn his GED began about four years ago, when Joseph began studying and looked into what it would take to earn his diploma.

The war got in the way of Joseph finishing high school when he was a young man. Explained Joseph, he was 15 when he enlisted in the Navy and became a gunner on a patrol bomber.

Four years later, he returned home to Ohio and became a mechanic. He went on to get a job at Railway Express, which transferred him to Benton Harbor, where he has remained ever since, marrying and raising his family.

In the time that he went from working with railroads to becoming a firefighter with the Benton Township Fire Department, Joseph never finished his high school education. He retired in 1980 after serving 20 years as a firefighter.

More than 30 years after his retirement, Joseph decided to cross something off his bucket list.

Quite an honor

In partnership with Heartland Alliance, Kinexus offers an adult education program for adults, starting at age 18.

His teachers described Joseph as a unique student in the program. Not only because of his seniority among many of the students, but because of his work ethic.

Joseph was in the program for two years and walked at the Bridge Academy graduation on June 7. But because of how unique Joseph’s situation was, Kinexus got in touch with his former high school in Akron, Ohio, where he had accumulated the majority of his credits as a teenager.

“The teachers over at Kinexus got ahold of my high school in Ohio and got them to furnish me with a diploma,” Joseph said. “It’s pretty great to get it this late in life. It’s quite an honor.”

Daughter Elizabeth Mohr was present for the ceremony Friday.

Mohr said her father at first had a more difficult time getting his degree than what was originally anticipated.

“They wouldn’t let him test because he was required to type 16 words per minute,” she said. “That’s pretty hard to do at his age.”

Seeing it through

Legislation passed into law in 2001 that enabled school boards to honor World War II and Korean War veterans with diplomas. The act was updated in 2014 to include Vietnam veterans.

Joseph still wanted to take the test, but the law helped speed up the process so he didn’t have to take the typing portion.

“Oh yeah, he still went through every course,” Mohr said. “He sat in class every day. He paid attention and did the work. Once he completed the course studies, they asked him to come back and every day he works at the school with other kids who are graduating.”

It was a special moment for Joseph and his family.

He walked with all the graduates up to the stage, and also gave a speech. It was a reminder to the teenagers about perseverance and the importance of an education.

When asked what he plans to do with his diploma, Joseph chuckled and said, “look for a job I guess.”

“I’m just happy knowing that I completed it,” Joseph said. “I have eight kids who all graduated from Benton Harbor High School. Even though my diploma comes from Ohio, I consider myself a Tiger.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on June 16, 2016)

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