ROGERSVILLE — By his own admission, Bill Craddock wasn’t much of a student and had “taught the education system all I know” by the time he dropped out to join the Air Force in 1950 at the age of 16.
The military helped straighten him out, and Craddock later earned a GED as well as four degrees, thanks to his employer, Meade Paper, which sent him to college.
However, there was a hole in Craddock’s educational record that he thought could never be filled.
He was wrong.
On Thursday evening, Volunteer High School Principal Bobby Wines handed 84-year-old Craddock a high school diploma, only 68 years after he left the old Church Hill High School for good.
Craddock was introduced to the Hawkins County Board of Education Thursday by Interim Director Reba Bailey, who noted that high school diplomas may be issued to veterans whose education was interrupted by World War I, World War II, the Korean War or the Vietnam War.
“Hawkins County has the privilege tonight to recognize one of those veterans whose education was interrupted by the service he gave to our country,” Bailey said.
Craddock, who lives in the Bloomingdale community with his wife, Jo Ann, is a member of an organization called Veterans of Underage Military Service (VUMS) for people who served in the military when they were 17 and younger.
Through that organization, Craddock learned about a program that works with veterans to get their high school diploma.
A VUMS representative subsequently contacted Hawkins County Schools high school supervisor Wes Smith, who performed the necessary legwork to get Craddock his diploma.
“Never in my life would I have dreamed that this would happen,” Craddock said upon receiving his diploma Thursday. “I really played school when I was in school. I really played. I didn’t study. I didn’t do much of anything.”
Craddock added, “When I was 16 years old, I decided I had taught the education system all I knew. It didn’t take long to do that because, like I said, I played school and was doing some things I’m not too proud of. I thought, ‘I believe I’ll fit in the military service.’ ”
Craddock enlisted on June 16, 1950 with his brother. That was nine days before the Korean War broke out, much to Craddock’s surprise.
Although his brother didn’t complete boot camp due to a medical problem, Craddock found himself a 16-year-old wartime soldier.
"I thought, ‘Man, oh, man, ain’t you goofy?’ ” Craddock said. “I said, ‘Well you asked for it.’ ”
He spent the Korean War in England as an air policeman guarding planes for the Air Force and later became an Air Force sentry dog trainer in Columbus, Miss., before leaving the service in 1958.
He then went to work for Meade and retired in 1992.
There were several students in the audience during Thursday’s BOE meeting, and Craddock offered them one piece of advice.
It wasn’t about staying in school. It was more of a life lesson.
“What you do for yourself is going to die with you,” he said. “If you do it for other people, it lives forever.”
He added, “I thank you all for what you’ve made possible for me tonight, and God bless you all.”
Craddock was also invited to walk with the Volunteer High School Class of 2019 on graduation night next spring and receive his diploma again in an official graduation ceremony.