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Honorary diploma marks achievement of a lifetime
Jun 10, 2011 | 26280 views | 0 0 comments | 7 7 recommendations | email to a friend | print

By Unsie Zuege 

At age 85, Bill Kurtz finally has his high school diploma. What makes it even sweeter is that it’s from Chanhassen High School, and that he is an honorary member of the Class of 2011, the school’s first-ever graduating class.

Bill, born in 1925, attended St. Hubert School through the eighth grade, and then worked on the family farm. For several summers, he and a couple friends went west and worked in the railroad and lumber industries in Washington State.

During World War II, he joined the Army. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge but never speaks of it. When he returned home, he married, raised a family, and had a long career as a mail carrier with the U.S. Postal Service in Hopkins. For all that he accomplished, there was still a void.

 “I think I always knew he regretted that [not attending high school and getting his diploma],” said his younger brother Bob Kurtz, 73, who did graduate from high school. “When I was going to school, if you lived in Chanhassen, you either went to Chaska High School or Eden Prairie High School, depending on which side of Highway 101 you lived on, east or west. So this is a wonderful thing.”

In more recent history, Chanhassen students attended Chaska High School. In September 2009, the new Chanhassen High School was completed and opened. Its first senior class graduates Friday afternoon at 4 p.m.Because of poor health, Bill won’t be at commencement. Instead, his family surprised him with his honorary high school diploma at his Hoyt Lakes home.

“My family, a sister and my dad's brother and wife went up Sunday [May 29] for lunch and his diploma,” said his daughter Barbara Kurtz Scharfenberg of Chanhassen. “He was very overwhelmed and reflective but very excited. He put on his cap and gown and we took a few photos. He looked handsome all dressed up and [he] had a very nice visit with all of us. It was a special day for sure, complete with a sheet cake that had "Congratulations Bill!" and the Chanhassen school color frosting roses.”

Early responsibility

Growing up, Barb admits she and her sisters were embarrassed that their dad didn’t have a high school diploma. As youngsters, they didn’t understand that many men in their father’s generation didn’t go to high school. Instead, many of them were expected to help their families. In Bill’s case, he was the middle child of five, but the oldest son.

As the oldest son, he was called home from the Army when his father died, discharged on family leave. His two older sisters were already married, so when he returned to Chanhassen, he took over as the head of the family, and oversaw the sale of the family farm on Lotus Lake. He married, had his own family, supporting them with a variety of jobs. When his mother died, his youngest brother Bob came to live with him and his family in Hopkins.

“He was thrilled to see his little brother graduate from high school, something that he never did,” Barbara said.

After a number of jobs, Bill eventually got a job as a mail carrier with the U.S.  Postal Service.

“It was a great job, he made a lot of friends, and was well-liked,” Barbara said. “I can still go to Hopkins and tell people I’m Bill Kurtz’s daughter and get a warm welcome… and he was also involved in the community with the Masonic Lodge, the VFW, the Lions Club, and when me and my sisters were in Girl Scouts, he volunteered with our troop.

“But the one thing that he regretted was that he never went to high school,” Barbara said. “He never got a high school diploma.”


  “A year ago in February, dad was diagnosed with terminal mesothemeolia lung cancer, which you get from prolonged exposure to asbestos,” Barbara said. “What we came to find out is that when he was in the Army, machine gunners like my dad were on ships with open piping and everything. They’d pull themselves up to their bunks by grabbing on to asbestos coated piping. And as machine gunners, they wore asbestos gloves.

“It can lie dormant in your system for 40 to 50 years,” Barbara said. “They gave him six months to live. My dad is always setting goals and he wanted to see summer. And he did. Then he wanted to make it to Thanksgiving, then to see the Christmas lights in December. Now it’s 15 months later. He’s lost a lot of weight and anything he does is very exhausting.

“What’s been nice is the time we’ve had with him and getting to know him as a person,” Barbara said, “not just as my dad. It’s really something to finally see your parents as people and not as parents.”

And then Barbara had an idea.  

“My daughter goes to Chanhassen High School,” Barbara said. “She’s just finishing her sophomore year. I started wondering, ‘has the school district ever given an honorary diploma to anyone before? It would be a wonderful thing for dad.

“My parents taught me that it never hurts to ask,” Barbara said. “They made their lives like that. So I asked [Principal] Tim Dorway about it. He said he didn’t know but he’d find out.”

A district 112 first

Dorway said it is the first time the district’s ever granted an honorary diploma.

After his conversation with Barbara, he contacted Superintendent Jim Bauck, Director of Administrative Services Jim O’Connell, Lynn Scearcy, chief academic officer and Nancy Kracke, director of community/staff relations.

“To their knowledge no one has every requested, or had ever requested this,” Dorway said. “Someone did find though, that in a number of states, it can be a veteran’s benefit … But this isn’t on the Minnesota books.”

Dorway presented the idea to an academic department chair, the Chanhassen High School building leadership team and the parent leadership group along with the student graduation committee and student council.

“When they heard Bill Kurtz’s story, the response was an overwhelming, ‘We should do this,’” Dorway said.

“When Tim called and said, ‘We can do it.’ I started to cry.” Barbara said. “Dad’s going to be thrilled.

“It’s a great way to honor my father, and a good community connection and it shows young people, just because you don’t have something doesn’t mean you can’t attain it in other ways. “Because of the life he’d had, he has a boatload of knowledge and wisdom.”  

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