A proud graduate
BREWSTER -- In the fall of 1933, Ray Wolff was working behind five horses in the field while his friends drove past, tooting their car horns and waving as they embarked on their freshman year of high school.
Wolff longed to join them, but his parents needed him -- the oldest son and second born of six children -- to work on the farm. He attended country school in Jackson County through the eighth grade.
"When they started high school, I was out there -- that was my education," Wolff said Wednesday morning at his home in Brewster. One might say that instead of graduating from high school, he graduated from the school of hard knocks.
Now, 75 years after his classmates earned their diplomas, Wolff finally heard "Pomp and Circumstance" played for him. It happened during Friday evening's commencement exercise at Round Lake-Brewster High School.
Standing alongside his great-grandson and 2012 RL-B graduate, Brady Meyer, and Nobles County Veterans Service Officer Bill "Brock" Brockberg, Wolff, a World War II veteran, accepted his high school diploma. Awarding honorary high school diplomas to World War II veterans began in Minnesota in 1999, spearheaded by the Minnesota Departments of Education and Veterans Affairs.
Wolff's path to graduation began last November when, during a routine visit to the Nobles County VSO, he lamented about not earning his high school diploma. That conversation led Brockberg to submit a request to the Round Lake-Brewster High School. Approval was granted from both the superintendent and school board, paving the way for the 92-year-old Wolff to graduate with his great-grandson.
"I thought it was pretty cool how they did that for him," said Meyer, who was told of his great-grandfather's honorary graduation just two weeks prior to the ceremony.
The two had a combined graduation party on Saturday afternoon, involving a whole hog roast and two graduation cakes -- one for each of the graduates.
Meyer said his great-grandpa teared up a little bit when he was presented his diploma. The honor is something he had long wished for.
"It was pretty nice, I tell ya," Wolff said. "To have your grandson walk up there and get one, too -- that was pretty nice."
Born and raised on a farm north of Alpha, Wolff said while his classmates were in school, he was working horses, making 10 or 11 half-mile rounds with a team of horses every morning, and then doing the same thing every afternoon to get the crops in the ground each spring, and to complete the harvest each fall.
"That was the Dirty Thirties," Wolff said.
Four months after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the then-22-year-old Wolff was drafted into the U.S. Army Air Corps. He spent two years state-side, completing his basic training in California before being assigned as a cook at Kirtland Air Force Base at Albuquerque, N.M. The last year and a half of his tour was spent primarily in the European Theater performing electrical work.
Wolff landed on Normandy Beach along the coast of France on the second day of the invasion. Recalling the still blood-red waters witnessed during that landing, as well as the massive numbers of casualties he saw in the Battle of the Bulge, he tears up even now. Wolff was one of the lucky ones, he said. He made it home.
"We moved all the time," said Wolff, a member of the 19th Active Air Command.
It was their job to set up camps for the generals as U.S. forces made their way northward. They had made it to Nuremberg, Germany, by the time the war in Europe ended. Shortly thereafter, Wolff was told he was being sent to the Pacific Theater.
"The day the bomb was dropped (on Japan), we was on the ocean," he recalled. "We were past the States already. The boat slowed down in the morning, and about 5 o'clock it came over the speakers that we were turning around."
Wolff still chuckles when he thinks of the celebration that took place aboard ship as they went "full steam ahead" toward the U.S.
"You wouldn't have known where all that booze came from -- I think everyone had one or two bottles in their duffle bag," he shared. "Yes sir, that was something."
Wolff was given a 30-day furlough after they docked on American soil, and returned to Albuquerque to join his wife, Dominica "Doris." The two were married May 3, 1943, while he was stationed at Kirtland AFB.
When Wolff's furlough was up, he was given an extension, which remained in place until his honorable discharge on Oct. 17, 1945. At that point, he and Doris moved to Minnesota and stayed with his parents until finding a home of their own in the Lakefield area.
It was after returning home from the war that Wolff was reminded just how important a high school education was.
"When I come out of the service, you had to have a year of high school education at least, and I didn't have it," he said. "If you didn't have a high school education, you got the dirty jobs."
Wolff found work on farms those first four years after World War II, and recalled the long hours of hard work spent on a dairy farm.
"The first year I worked on a farm I got up at 5 o'clock in the morning and got done at 8 o'clock every night. Fifteen hours a day for $100 ... a month," he said. "It was seven days a week. Everything was done by hand ... scoop shovel and a five-tine pitch fork."
Wolff joked that it would have been fitting for him to show up at his graduation wearing a pair of overalls and carrying a five-tine pitchfork.
"That's what I was used to," he said. He did not have a cap and gown to wear for the ceremony.
Much of Wolff's career was spent in the carpentry trade, building homes and barns and, near the end of his career, cabinets.
"I worked a little bit for one guy and he learned me everything -- he was a good teacher," Wolff said, adding he never fully retired until about a dozen years ago.
A widower since 2003, Wolff now spends his time with his faithful Chihuahua, Tish, under foot.
He and his wife had one son, Dennis (Beverly) Wolff, and they live about five blocks apart. The family also includes two granddaughters, six great-grandchildren and one great-great-granddaughter.
Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.