By Ryn Gargulinski
It may have taken 56 years, two wars and five children for him to do it, but Tucumcari resident Joe Valverde finally got his high school diploma — at age 73.
“I made the military my career,” Valverde said, “and I never finished high school.”
Although one cannot say he did not try. Living in Tucumcari at age 16, Valverde said he was attending high school classes all day while working the 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift at Lins Café. He
said he recalls little of high school except he was tired.
“I was fortunate I had two teachers — one was Mrs. Hall who taught English and the other was Mr. Robertson who worked at the First National Bank at that time; they used to emphasize English and math. That was the only two hours I was alert (through the school day).”
In addition to fatigue, he said the school issue came down to money.
“People think public school is free. It’s not free. I was working hard to turn around and buy this, buy that,” Valverde said, adding he finally dropped out of high school during the Christmas holidays of 1948 and joined the Army on Jan. 6, 1949.
When asked why he so clearly recalls the date, Valverde responded, “I remember because I was underweight. I signed up on January 3 and they kept me for three days to fatten me up. They kept feeding me all these bananas. Oh my God, I must have eaten 100 bananas.”
His military career ended up taking him far from bananas. He met his wife early in his military life and ended up not only being stationed in Italy and Japan, but being sent to the wars in Korea and Vietnam.
“It was worse than they say,” Valverde said, adding he prefers not to recall those days. “Only two good things happened in Korea and Vietnam,” Valverde said. “I met another individual from Tucumcari at the Punchbowl (a battlefield) in Korea. The second thing was Cunto Montano, he was also from Tucumcari. I met him in Vietnam.”
Valverde said his other overseas time with the Army — in Europe and Japan — was quite a bit more pleasant to recall. After all, he said his youngest son was born in Italy and his oldest daughter, as he puts it, “was made in Japan.”
Although he said he saw Rome, he saw the Orient, he retired from the Army, engaged in an Army training program and sold life insurance and cars and actually held a General Equivalency Diploma (GED) since 1949. Valverde said it continued to irk him that he never got his diploma.
“I always encourage my children to continue to read and get an education,” Valverde said. “I saw them advancing so much, I though I might go ahead and get my own diploma. I never stopped reading — I just wanted something more formal (than the GED) to make it official.”
And official the diploma became, complete with a blue leather folder from Tucumcari High School and a graduation date of May 27, 2005.
Although his diploma is dated last May, Valverde said he did not go pick it up until just recently. And when he did, he said it made him shiver with giddiness.
“I only had that feeling only one other time in my life,” he said. “That’s when I got married.”
Valverde said he was also hoping to take part in the 2006 graduation ceremonies.
Tucumcari High School Principal Susan Montoya said she is amenable to the idea and arrangements may be made.
In addition to taking part in the ceremony, Valverde said he would also be interested in speaking at a school assembly.
“Maybe one word that I say may help children stay in school,” Valverde said, “show them how important it is to get a high school diploma.”