Ralph Lee England had the best possible reason for dropping out of school: He was drafted into World War II.
He lived just fine for decades without his diploma, raising a family and working as a truck driver and mechanic. But it bothered him.
“He just always said he wished he had a high school diploma because he didn’t feel as smart as everybody else,” said England’s sister, Barbara Williams.
Wednesday night he got that diploma. It was awarded by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools officials who weren’t born when England went off to fight, from a high school that no longer exists.
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And by the time the 92-year-old finished shaking hands, flashing salutes and giving thumbs-up signs from his motorized wheelchair, a lot of school board members were sniffing back tears.
“Sir, we don’t have the words to express and thank you for what you did for us,” said board member Eric Davis, a fellow Army veteran. “But knowing that you, in your youth, sacrificed for us the opportunity to earn a diploma to defend our country, we would like to make it right by presenting you this diploma.”
England, who will quickly inform you that he turns 93 on Dec. 1, beamed as reporters gathered to hear his story. He said he plans to hang his new honorary diploma from Berryhill High School next to his picture of Jesus.
“I’m just an old country boy,” he said. “You couldn’t give me nothing better.”
England, who now lives in Mint Hill’s Clear Creek nursing home, grew up as one of seven children in a then-rural area near where UNC Charlotte now stands. He drove a school bus to Berryhill High, which is now a K-8 school near the Catawba River. After World War II broke out, the teenager also picked up scrap metal for the war effort.
At 18, he was a bit older than some students. That’s because his mom held him back so he could go through school with his younger brother, Williams said.
When the draft board called, England left school.
England fell and hurt his back during training, which could have kept him from going overseas. But he insisted, serving in North Africa and Italy. He recalls that his buddies didn’t like the food, so he tapped the Southern cooking skills he’d learned from his mother, taking over kitchen duties to make tastier meals.
While he was in the service, the Army notified England that his mother was sick. That was a euphemism: Her “illness” was a surprise pregnancy. When he got home England had twin baby sisters, one of whom was Williams.
All these decades later, England has outlived much of his family. It was Williams’ daughter, Tammy Michael of Mint Hill, who contacted CMS to see if there was any way her uncle could get his diploma 74 years after the fact.
The district produced a tribute video, summoned a color guard and presented the diploma two days before Veterans Day. England watched the video with the rest of the audience at the board meeting.
And when an American flag appeared on the screen, he saluted.