COQUILLE — In June of 1945, Jack Stevens was called to fight in World War II before he could graduate with the rest of his class at Coquille High School.
But over the weekend, 74 years later, Stevens donned the Red Devils cap and gown and walked across the stage at 91 years old, proud to be part of the “crew” of new CHS graduates, which was 42 in total.
Jack Stevens, right, a World World II veteran, raises his cane to graduates after receiving his diploma Sunday during a commencement ceremony …
“He attended kindergarten through high school in the Coquille School District,” read a paragraph out of the graduation program on Sunday, June 1. “While he completed all of his high school graduation requirements, he was unable to walk with his class in the graduation ceremony because the (U.S. Marines) called him up and told him to report to Portland and get on a troop train that day so he could serve in WWII.”
“When I couldn’t get my diploma, I felt cheated,” Stevens told The World. “I had specifically asked before signing the papers that I would like to be here to walk with everybody else. The fella said, ‘Sure, that’d be no problem.’ Well, there was a problem I guess because I didn’t get to do it.”
Though he said it made him unhappy not to walk like he had planned back then, he was fine with the rest because he joined the Marine Corps to follow in his uncle’s footsteps. His uncle, Keith Witte, was a hero in WWI where he captured six German soldiers and always walked with a limp, Stevens remembered.
“He was wounded and always carried it with him because it was close to something that in those days made it impossible to operate,” Stevens said. “But he was a Marine and my idol, which is why I joined.”
After being called, earlier than expected, Stevens traveled to the recruit depot in San Diego, Calif. for training and from there was shipped to China for the job to accept the surrender of the Japanese Army. He was present for the return of all the Japanese military personnel and civilians.
“After completing their mission, they shipped out on the carrier Shangri-La that carried the atomic bomb used on Japan,” the graduation program read.
“In WWII, we were small, just the bottom of the barrel, so we weren’t around anything like the surrender, but it was great,” Stevens remembered. “A lot of the guys were in there a long time and ready to go home, while I was ready to see what would happen. My feelings were different than the older guys who had been through what I was looking for.”
After serving for just under two years, he came home to eventually work for his dad at the family grocery store in Coquille.
“I stayed in grocery, where I was raised,” he said and remembered where his dad’s early work for Safeway took the family, which went from San Francisco, Calif. to Medford, then to Coos Bay and Myrtle Point before they finally settled in Coquille.
“He had a chance then to buy the store there and he did,” Stevens said. “He also bought a 50-footer from Alaska, and after WWII I ran that for three years.”
Together, they bought crab pots and dropped those south of Bandon. Though Stevens ran it for three years, it took his stomach two months to get used to the work.
“Imagine every morning, and we went out every third day to run the crab pots, looking forward to traveling down there knowing that somewhere along the way you’d be hanging over the side,” he laughed.
Stevens finally retired at 85 years old, not knowing that he would still have the chance to receive that high school diploma the way he always wanted.
The chance for him to walk across the stage was started with one of his son-in-laws who knows Jeff Philley, principal of Coquille High School and told him Stevens’ story.
When Stevens was told that he would be able to walk with the graduating class of 2019, he told them he didn’t want to take attention from the students.
“I don’t want to be the hit of the show,” he said. “This is for the kids, not me. I didn’t want speeches, nothing like that. I think it’s wonderful they’re giving me a chance to join them and be one of the crew. Now I’m going to do it and I’m looking forward to it.”
Of course, though he never attended his own, graduation ceremonies are no foreign event for Stevens. He served on the North Bend School Board for 22 years and spent two years on the budget committee.
“So I’ve been involved roughly 20 times in this process so this is not new to me, but it is important to me now that it has gone this far,” he said. “I’m very fortunate to have lived this long and do this, especially when I have lost so many good friends. I look and laugh because here’s a guy who has been through the mill many times and now it’s my turn to walk. That’s pretty neat.”