MUSKEGON, Mich. — Milton Mockerman is proof that it's never too late to finish what you started.
The 89-year-old has never shied away from a good story or a challenge, but while he's seen and done a lot in his life one accomplishment has remained elusive.
Mockerman enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1944 to serve during the final years of World War II. But instead of graduating high school, he spent two years on a ship in the south Pacific.
“I was getting unruly at home and I kept telling my dad, ‘I’m going in the Navy,’ and he'd say ‘If you can figure out how,'" Mockerman recalls.
Just 16 years old at the time—a junior in high school—he doctored his own birth certificate in typing class in order to join the service.
"The guy looked at it, and I’m sure he knew it," he said. "But he had a quota to make at that time and they needed people badly. So they took me.”
Obligation to his country, he says, drove him to lie about his age in order to enlist.
"They needed people, we were at war," Mockerman told FOX 17 “I felt it was my duty to go do what I could.”
Mockerman was assigned to the USS Springfield right out of boot camp, traveling through the Panama Canal and past Pearl Harbor before joining the rest of the U.S. fleet in the south Pacific ocean during the tail-end of the war.
He remembers being within half a mile of the USS Missouri in the Tokyo Bay during the signing of the Japanese Instrument of Surrender, the written agreement that marked the end of World War II.
Trading his schooling for service, Mockerman was promised he'd be able to graduate once he returned home from duty.
That promise went up in smoke.
"The school burnt down in the time I’d gotten back from the Navy," he said of Kalkaska High School, which burned down in 1946. "It burnt right down to the ground with all the records."
Mockerman, not one to dwell, accepted he might never get to graduate, instead spending the next seven decades getting married, starting a family and earning a living working for the railroad in Muskegon before retiring in 1987.
"I had given up on the idea," he said.
But within the past year, Mockerman began to revisit the idea. He reached out to administrators at Kalkaska High School hoping to at least be able to earn his G.E.D. He said he was prepared to take classes again if that's what it would take.
He and his son made the drive north to submit proof of his discharge from the service to the school. But to their surprise, administrators offered him something better: an honorary diploma.
"This was something," Mockerman said. "But I liked the idea of getting (the diploma) from the old hometown.”
Before letting him leave, Mockerman was asked to speak to two of the schools' history classes. The man who loves a good story relished in the opportunity.
"They asked a lot of questions, they were interested, right down to the girlfriends and if I had any," he said smiling.
"They overwhelmed me with the attention. It got boomeranged into something else.”
At the end of the month, Mockerman will officially join the class of 2017. School leaders say the seniors requested he be able to walk into the commencement ceremony with them.
Mockerman will be seated in the front row. Several of his children, grandchildren and even great grandchildren are expected to attend.