An 83-year-old veteran with a colorful life story received a high school diploma Wednesday from the San Diego County Board of Education as part of the Operation Recognition program.
Norm Johnson, a Korean War veteran who left San Diego High School in 1950 to join the U.S. Air Force, said the honor was very emotional and important for him.
“I was starting to cry when I was telling my kids that I was getting my diploma,” Johnson said. “I never thought I’d graduate. Like a lot of GIs, once I was away from school and was forced to take the GED test, I just thought, ‘I’m a man now. What do I need with a diploma?’ ”
Operation Recognition is a statewide program that honors people who didn’t finish high school because of war. Those eligible include veterans of World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, as well as Japanese-Americans placed in internment camps during World War II. Johnson is the 10th person to receive an honorary diploma from the San Diego County Board of Education through the program since 2004.
“It’s a thrill to be a part of honoring people who gave up so much during times of war, including a high school diploma,” said Nicole Shina, who oversees the program for the San Diego County Office of Education. “Seeing these heroes get their diplomas, even if it’s decades later, is heartwarming.”
Johnson’s incredible life has included serving as a personal bodyguard for Gen. Douglas MacArthur, hanging out with James Dean and Elvis Presley, and doing PR for boxer Joe Lewis.
He now lives in Las Vegas, where he writes an online weekly entertainment column.
Johnson said he’s thankful for the opportunity that Operation Recognition has given him to finally get his high school diploma.
“This program is terrific,” he said. “When you get older, things like this mean a lot.”