84-year-old Army veteran of World War II gets high school diploma at last

FORT WORTH -- Orange A. Cunningham was 18 when the United States called him to serve in World War II.

Cunningham heeded the call to duty in 1944, but it meant missing his senior year of high school. After military service, family and work beckoned, so Cunningham's dream of earning a high school diploma took a back seat. Still, throughout the 66 years since his draft, Cunningham, an Army veteran, often told relatives that he wanted his diploma.

On Sunday, he received that prized certificate just in time for his 84th birthday. Relatives and friends attended a ceremony at Hope of Glory Kingdom Ministries in north Fort Worth.

"I feel good," Cunningham said before the celebration.

He felt so strongly about his dream that his family worked to help him realize it.

"During the whole time he has talked about his diploma," said Mildred Marshall, one of his three daughters.

After some historical sleuth work, the help of state Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, the Buffalo school district and the Texas Education Agency, Cunningham received an honorary diploma.

The school district established that if Cunningham were a senior today, he would be a student in the Buffalo schools, between Dallas and Houston, Veasey said.

For the ceremony, Cunningham had a black cap and gown with a purple and gold tassel -- the spirit colors for Buffalo High School. Cunningham has a knack for writing, so relatives presented Veasey with a poem that Cunningham penned.

He had attended an all-black high school in the Mexia area, Veasey said. But finding school records from formerly segregated schools is difficult because many no longer exist, or the schools changed names or closed while students were attending them, Veasey said. Sometimes, students had to attend all-black schools in a different town or county from where they lived.

Veasey said Cunningham benefited from a program that helps get diplomas for veterans whose schooling was interrupted by duty to country.

"It wasn't unusual for veterans to make this sacrifice," Veasey said.

Cunningham worked for 30 years helping make sure Will Rogers Coliseum was swept and clean, Marshall said.

He also work nights doing janitorial work. At one time he owned Cunningham Janitorial Services.

"He was working to send us to school," Marshall said, adding that he stressed the importance of an education.

Veasey said Cunningham's quest can help younger generations understand the experience of segregation.

"It's hard for people to accept and for a lot of people to talk about," he said. "It happened, but we are a better country today. It's OK to highlight these schools and let people celebrate their family histories."

DIANE SMITH, 817-390-7675