YALE, Okla. – For many, getting through high school can be quite the battle. For Frank “Hap” Bickell, of Yale, Okla., it was – quite literally – a war.
In testament to his will and determination, the former World War II veteran was first to walk across the stage, last week, to receive his diploma at Yale High School among 40 other much younger graduates.
“I was really excited going across the stage and getting my diploma,” said Bickell. “It was something I always wished I had gotten. It’s a little too late to use it now, but at least I have it.”
Bickell, 86, dropped out of high school in the early ‘40s to find employment and help his parents, who were still struggling from the Great Depression. It wasn’t long after that Bickell was drafted and instead deployed as a combat medic, where his travels took him through France to Gen. Patton’s 3rd Army during the Battle of the Bulge in the heart of Germany.
As the Allies beat back the Nazi offensive in the Ardennes and marched into Germany, Bickell was confronted with a history lesson that would haunt his memory for the rest of his life.
Here, Bickell was assigned to help treat survivors of a concentration camp that had been liberated, where he saw mass graves that Nazi officers had used to set afire the bodies of prisoners who had been lined up at the top of the trench and shot to death as the Allies closed in.
When the war ended and Bickell returned home, he got a barber’s license and began cutting hair, married his wife, Anna, and started a family. For the most part, he never stopped regretting the missed opportunity to get a high school diploma. That was until one his sons, Keith, after watching a news broadcast that reported on a program for World War II vets to receive the high school diplomas they missed out on decades earlier, began to put the same idea in his father’s head.
“We (father and son) were sitting around one night playing a board game and dad started talking about the days he played high school basketball,” said Keith Bickell. “I was really amazed.”
Soon after filling out an application with the State Department, the government jumped in and joined forces with the Bickell family and Yale officials, who proceeded to allow the soldier who helped make history become a part of it at the high school, in Northeast Oklahoma.
Derk Watson, a GE coordinator with the Oklahoma State Department of Education who works closely with adult learning students, said the Veterans Diploma Program is open to military personnel who served in World War II, Korea and Viet Nam.
“It’s not something we do every day,” said Watson. “We probably have two a month making the request. The intent is to honor those who served and complete a wish they have had.”
Watson said the majority of diploma recipients will use their sheepskins for nothing more, but added that one 83-year-old World War II veteran from Holdenville was finally able to land a job at casino that he would not have been able to get without the certificate from his high school.
During the ceremony, Bickell, was embraced by the other graduates – some 65 years his younger – by flashing his portrait in a slide show presentation at the same school he would have received his diploma in 1944, had not he been asked to answer a call from his country.
“Dad’s in pretty good shape for his age,” said Keith Bickell. “We did have to help him up the stairs to the stage a little bit, but it was awesome.”
Richard Baker, a counselor at Yale, said Bickell also received a citation from Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, honors from the State Senate and Legislature, and an American flag that flew over Baghdad from a U.S. Army colonel who fought in Iraq.
Bickell said he has no intentions to move on to college and will, instead, go back to doing what he likes doing best; watching westerns with his wife at their home in Del City, Okla.