When Donald Cole graduated from Baraboo High school in January 1947, there was no pomp and circumstance.
The rest of his graduating class had finished the June before, but an incomplete in English had brought him back for another semester. The war was over, it was the dead of winter, and he was ready to get to work.
He never received his diploma, and he never asked for it.
“I’m a procrastinator,” he said recently, around what would have been his 70th class reunion.
Admittedly, he doesn’t get a lot of requests for his diploma these days.
Twenty five years into retirement, after service in the Navy and a career in maintenance, after raising three daughters and witnessing the passage of the second half of the 20th Century, there aren’t many people demanding to see proof that he graduated from Baraboo High School in 1946.
Or 1947, if you’re going to be particular about it.
And yet, he has thought about it often over the years. It has pulled at him, and he has longed for it in a way he can’t really explain.
But that’s, perhaps, what makes it so meaningful.
He wanted that diploma for himself.
And then one day this spring, he decided to ask for it.
He went first to the old Baraboo High School, now the Civic Center. Then he came into the administration office on Second Avenue. He thought the district might have his original diploma on file, but they didn’t — only his transcript, with its hand-written grades from three quarters of a century ago.
Inspecting a photocopy of his high school transcript, he confessed his grades of record weren’t the same as his grades of memory.
“I guess I wasn’t half as good as I thought I was,” he shrugged.
But did it matter now?
“It was the end of the war. I wanted to quit at one time and join the service and my dad wouldn’t let me. He never finished school, so he knew the importance of an education,” he said. “So I stuck it out.”
This isn’t the story of the kind of high-profile high school hero we all know.
If you look for Donald Lincoln Cole in the Minnewaukan yearbooks from the mid-1940s, you’ll have a hard time finding him. You won’t find see his earnest face in the photos for Latin Club or Pep Club, Band or Glee Club, Student Council or Prom Committee.
With the exception of his membership in the Wisconsin Guard, he recalls, “I stuck pretty much just to the courses.”
But the sticking with it is what he remembers.
Even when the war called to him.
Even when he didn’t pass English, and the rest of his class graduated without him.
He came back in the fall. He finished the class. He graduated.
This isn’t the story of a high school hero. This is the story of a high school education.
Donald didn’t go on to a traditional college. But his time at Baraboo High School prepared him to work to support a family. To serve his country. To contribute to his community.
His education set him forth into the world to succeed, and he held his high school graduation as such a point of pride that a lifetime later he yearned for that gold-embossed piece of paper that conveyed, simply, “yes.”
“Yes,” you did this.
“Yes,” you stuck it out.
“Yes,” you finished what you started.
“Yes,” you’re deserving.
District staff had a special diploma printed for him, signed by current high school Principal Glenn Bildsten, School Board President Kevin Vodak, and Superintendent Lori Mueller.
He picked it up this week, with glassy eyes and a humble smile and a thank you.
“I’m kind of proud of myself ’cause now I’ve got proof,” he said.
And so, diploma in hand, he headed for the door. “Don't be late for your graduation party!” Mueller teased.
“Is that why they fixed up the Al. Ringling Theatre — for my party?” he quipped.
And then, as the door closed behind him, “See you in another 70 years.”