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Vet receives diploma

Brian Korthals/Daily Globe Murray County Central Superintendent Summer Pankonen (left) and American Legion Second District Vice Commander Bill Brockberg congratulate Korean War veteran Leander "Lee" Oertli of Adrian on receiving his diploma Wednesday afternoon during the Veterans Day program at MCC in Slayton.1 / 2
Commander Jake Stoel reflects on the day during the Veterans Day program Wednesday at Murray County Central High School in Slayton.2 / 2

SLAYTON -- Most students receive a high school diploma at age 18, but Leander Oertli of Adrian waited considerably longer than that.

More than 60 years after dropping out of school at age 14, and to his total surprise, Oertli was handed a diploma from Murray County Central Wednesday during the Veterans Day program at the high school.

When his older brother left to serve in the military during World War II, Oertli left school to take his place on the family farm on the edge of Slayton. By the time his brother returned from the war, Oertli was too old to return to school.

"It was just too late to go back," he explained.

In 1951 he enlisted in the U.S. Army, serving two years primarily with the allied occupational forces in Germany during the Korean War. He and his wife of 40 years, Colletta, live in Adrian. They have two daughters and two granddaughters, one a kindergartner at MCC.

In 1999, the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs and the state education agency, the Department of Children, Families and Learning, proposed to local school districts that they award high school diplomas to Minnesota veterans whose education was interrupted by World War II.

In his many files and clippings about Veterans Administration benefits and veteran news, Oertli found information about getting a diploma. He contacted Nobles County Veterans Service Officer Bill Brockberg with a request and filed an application in June.

I would like to apply for my high school diploma," Oertli wrote. "I had to drop out of school, as my brother was in the service and I had to help on the farm. A copy of my honorable discharge is in your file."

"After careful and proper consideration, the Murray County Central School Board approved that request," Brockberg said.

When Brockberg was informed of the school board's response, he contacted Oertli's daughter Jean Hamann.

"I offered to make it a surprise," he said.

And was it ever.

"I certainly didn't expect it," said Oertli. "(Brockberg) has always done a lot for me, and when he asked me to come up here to watch the program I agreed."

In front of MCC students, peers and his wife, Oertli stood slowly and stepped forward to take the diploma from MCC Superintendent Summer Pankonen, his shock at the turn of events evident.

"I know some World War II vets received (a diploma)," he stated. "I'm probably one of the first Korean vets to get one, I think."

When asked what he intends to do with his new diploma, Oertli had a quick answer.

"I'm going to put it on the mantle," he said with a grin. "And then go get a better job."