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Published: Wednesday, 2/6/2008

Surprise! Clay grad gets diploma 55 years later

BY JANET ROMAKER
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Joe Donaldson looks over his just-warded Clay High School diploma while his wife Midge looks on. Joe Donaldson looks over his just-warded Clay High School diploma while his wife Midge looks on.
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A couple weeks ago, Midge Donaldson launched a "top secret mission."

At age 16 her husband Joe left Clay High School, went to work at Hale Crome Service in Toledo, and then at age 18 joined the Navy and served in Korea.

Mr. Donaldson always regretted that he hadn't graduated from high school, and that's exactly what Mrs. Donaldson told officials on her mission to get his diploma about 55 years later.

When the family gathered Sunday at the Donaldsons' home in Jerusalem Township, Mr. Donaldson was led to believe that the party was being held to celebrate three birthdays.

Just after family members arrived, some special guests, Mary and Dave Mowka, showed up carrying a cake, letters, and a black cap and a gown.

As cameras clicked and tears trickled down cheeks, Mrs. Donaldson announced that family members hadn't gathered for the trio of birthdays.

Rather, "they're here for your graduation," she told her husband.

Mrs. Mowka, an administrative assistant with the Lucas County Educational Service Center, and Mr. Mowka, a service officer with the Lucas County Veteran's Service Commission, were instrumental in getting the diploma in time for the party.

Mrs. Mowka helped ease Mr. Donaldson's arms into the black gown, and then she placed the cap atop his head. She told him, "We need you to put this on. It's long overdue."

Then came the applause, and a kiss for Mr. Donaldson from his wife.

Mr. Mowka told the family that he has conducted hundreds of graduations for veterans, but typically the request comes via a phone call, not a letter.

When he read the letter from Mrs. Donaldson, he knew that he wanted to make this happen in time to coincide with her 70th birthday.

Working with Oregon City Schools' Superintendent John Hall, Mr. Mowka pulled it together. Military records verified information provided by Mrs. Donaldson, and it was determined that Mr. Donaldson was entitled to a diploma.

Letters from Lucas County commissioners and U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) were read aloud by Mr. Mowka, and soon Mrs. Donaldson, who graduated from Clay High School in 1956, was asking for a box of tissues for her husband.

"You said I couldn't keep a secret," Mrs. Donaldson said, "but I did pretty good."

Then she said that her mascara probably was a mess because of all the crying.

Mr. Donaldson, who was to have been in the class of 1953, noted that he's the third Joe Donaldson to graduate from Clay High School. His son and grandson, both of whom are named Joey, are Clay alumni.

In her letter to officials, Mrs. Donaldson said her husband "never wanted our kids to know he didn't have a diploma because he wanted them to get one so badly."

She noted that Mr. Donaldson was owner and vice president of Hale Crome from 1975 to 1995 when he retired and that the lack of a high school diploma didn't hold him back. But still, Mrs. Donaldson said, her husband lived with the regret of leaving high school.

The couple celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in October.

"The second I saw him, I knew I was going to marry him," Mrs. Donaldson recalled.

Mrs. Donaldson's 70th birthday was Feb. 1. Her sister Dianne Sigurdson of Oak Harbor and the Donaldsons' grandson Joey of Oregon marked their birthdays Feb. 1 as well.

Mr. Donaldson, who turned 74 on Dec. 7 - "that's Pearl Harbor day," he pointed out - had quadruple bypass surgery two months ago, and he said his family has been watching him closely during his recuperation.

Relatives were making sure too that he didn't find out about the upcoming graduation ceremony.

"It is hard to keep secrets in this family," said Butch Mottmiller, the Donaldsons' son-in-law. He is married to the Donaldsons' daughter Sandy, a 1978 Clay High School graduate. The Mottmillers live in Williston, Ohio.

Among those attending the graduation were the Mottmillers' daughter Jenni Schimming of Williston and their 1-year-old granddaughter Payton Schimming.

During the Korean War, Mr. Donaldson served aboard the USS Saipan. He received a Good Conduct Medal, the National Defense Medal, the Korean Service Medal, and the U.N. Service Medal.

Mr. Mowka plans to nominate Mr. Donaldson for the Ohio Veterans' Hall of Fame.

As four generations of his family enjoyed a potluck lunch and pieces of graduation cake, Mr. Donaldson took some time to reflect.

"I always was kind of ashamed of it," he said about his lack of a high school diploma.

His reaction to the commencement ceremony in the living room of his home?

"I'm stunned, I guess. Emotional. I sure never expected it," he said, "but better late then never."



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