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He's 83 and a fresh graduate from May-Port-Cg

Kenneth Olson lifts the tassel on his grandson's mortarboard for a kiss from his wife Luella after recieving an honorary degree from Mayville/Portland-C G High School Friday afternoon. JOHN STENNES

MAYVILLE, N.D. -- Wearing a mortarboard, suspenders and a ear-to-ear grin, Kenneth Olson received his high school diploma Friday.

Minus the suspenders, it is a scene that will be repeated thousands of times in the region this weekend. One difference from most graduates is that Olson is 83 and last attended school 68 years ago. Another was that it's an honorary degree, awarded to veterans who went to war rather than to a classroom.

That honorary status mattered not at all to the 17 family members from three generations who jammed into the May-Port-CG High School board room to watch Olson receive the diploma from Principal Scott Ulland.

Luella Olson beamed as her husband pulled on their grandson's crimson mortarboard, his first clue to what was happening. The family had kept his degree a secret. The Breckenridge, Minn., resident believed his three days of fishing on Devils Lake were being interrupted for dinner.

But he recovered quickly from the surprise after Ulland moved his red, white and blue tassel to the other side of mortarboard. Olson spread his arms wide and exclaimed, "I finally made it."

But the pride in his diploma was equaled by the pride in his family. "I feel very honored that my children and siblings went through all this trouble to do this," he said.

Sons Gerald, Wayne, Roger and Alan Olson and daughter Stephanie Hensel put it together. They learned that North Dakota law allows school districts to award honorary high school degrees to veterans of World War II and the Korean and Vietnam conflicts. The vets need to have received honorable discharges.

It was the first request received by May-Port-CG. Ulland made a computer-generated diploma that was a replica of the diplomas that will be handed out Sunday to the Class of 2009.

"It's basically in recognition of his years of service to his country and to let him know we're appreciative of that," Superintendent of Schools Mike Bradner said.

Olson was born on the family farm near Blanchard and attended Mayville schools for 10 years. As a 15-year-old sophomore, six years after his dad died, he left school to work on area farms.

"I had to go out and make some money," he said. "Someone had to support the family."

Just before he turned 18 in 1943, he enlisted in the Navy during the height of WWII. He served in The Philippines, working on PT boats, until the war ended in 1945.

"Today was long overdue," Hensel said. "I can see in his face that he's thrilled and very proud. He never had a graduation party before."

The graduation party moved to Paula's Café, where a cake was waiting. The frosting carried the image of the American flag.