By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer
Emmett Leroy Hobdy left the halls of Clovis High School for the darker corridors of a Navy mercantile ship when his high school career was uprooted by World War II.
He was 17, and a high school senior, when he joined the Navy in the winter of 1944, and was sent into the choppy waters of the Pacific Ocean. His unit was among those involved in the liberation of the Philippines and the invasion of Okinawa, Japan.
More than 60 years later, the high school career Hobdy left hanging to serve his country has been sutured. He received his diploma last month through a New Mexico law passed in 2004 that allows World War II and Korean War veterans a chance to receive the diplomas deprived them by war.
Humble and soft spoken, Hobdy declined an invitation to receive his diploma with other Clovis High School graduates this spring in a commencement ceremony. He plans to buy a frame for the long-awaited diploma and hang it on his wall.
“I got the feeling I would be drafted, so I joined the Navy. That was better than being put in the infantry,” Hobdy, 79, said from his Albuquerque home. “Some evaded the draft and went up into Canada. But I wanted to serve my time.
“I’ve always been curious about getting my diploma, but I thought I would never have the opportunity,” Hobdy said.
Hobdy said six other men from his Clovis High class chose the same path as he, joining the military before graduating. They have all passed away, he said.
Ninety-eight World War II and Korean War veterans have received high school diplomas since the law, sponsored by Gov. Bill Richardson, was passed, according to New Mexico Department of Veteran’s Services Secretary John Garcia.
“Many men were 16 and 17 years old, and they lied about their ages to go and fight,” Garcia said. “For many of them, this (diploma) is the most important recognition they will ever get, more important than a bronze star or a metal, because they lost the opportunity to finish school.”
When Hobdy returned home from war, he immediately went to work, which left him little time, he said, to mull over his lost high school career.
He found employment at a grocery store before going to work with his father for the railroad. He moved on and worked for 36 years with Continental Airlines, where he rose to become the director of contract services, he said.
“I just enjoyed life, and I wasn’t worried about not having a diploma,” he said.
Yet, when Hobdy learned about the opportunity to receive a diploma, he pursued it wholeheartedly, waiting three years for his paperwork to be processed and the diploma to be sent to his doorstep.
Jelayne Curtis, Clovis Municipal Schools administrative assistant, searched through reams of microfiche to find Hobdy’s transcripts, documents necessary for completion of the process.
“It is touching — his high school diploma was important to him no matter what age he was,” Curtis said.
Age and declining health are surmountable for most veterans who receive their diplomas through the law, according to Garcia. He has seen many confined to wheelchairs, or limping with canes, attend commencement ceremonies to receive diplomas. Some, he said, don the colors of their alma maters for the ceremony or wear caps and gowns.
“It brings tears to your eyes,” said Garcia, “because you know what they have been through. To me they’ve earned it,” he said of the veterans.
New Mexico is the only state that has enacted the law that grants diplomas to the veterans of the two wars, Garcia said. There are more than 200,000 veterans in New Mexico, according to Garcia. A third are Korean and World War II veterans, he said. A large number of them hailed from ranches and farms in the state, and upon returning from war, went back to work and raised families. But the generation is disappearing.
It is estimated that between 1,300 to 1,500 veterans of those wars die a day, Garcia said.
“These men could teach a course on history,” Garcia said.
“This is an important gesture of the state. This is to say, ‘You’ve earned it.’ This is to say, ‘We didn’t forget you,’” Garcia said.