APACHE, Okla. (AP) — When Phillip J. Killsfirst Sr. walked across the stage last month during the Apache High School commencement exercise, it was an experience 48 years in the making.
"It felt pretty good," he told The Lawton Constitution (http://bit.ly/1bmgJ2p). "My emotions were all over the place."
At 66 years old, Killsfirst was the oldest graduate in this year's class.
He dropped out during his senior year of high school in 1966 and was drafted into the Army and deployed to Vietnam. While stationed in Fort Polk, Louisiana, for training, the military made him take his GED test, which he never had any aspirations of passing. Much to his surprise, he passed.
"How I did that, to this day I still don't know," Killsfirst said.
After he was discharged from the Army, the veteran began working in Apache.
He said he simply forgot about earning his GED and moved on with his life.
The GI Bill afforded him an opportunity to go to college or a trade school, but it took him nine years to take advantage of it. He was told there was a 10-year limit on the educational benefits and the federal government would only pay for one year of school. So he took advantage of it and attended his first year at Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology.
"After my first year, I went down to the Bureau of Indian Affairs and asked if they would fund my second year," Killsfirst said. "A year later, I graduated with a certification for heating and air conditioning."
Killsfirst didn't have much use for his certification, as he took a job at Woodward's Furniture in Apache, where he worked for 22 years.
Looking back, he said life simply got in the way of furthering his education.
"When I got out, I had a family, and like all families, they needed food and clothing I had to provide for," Killsfirst said.
A retired Apache educator told the now retired longtime Apache resident about a program in which those who received their GED could get an official diploma.
He didn't think much of it until his wife, Inola, remembered earlier this year and contacted the school principal. After several days, they were told Killsfirst could graduate.
More than 48 years after dropping out of school, Killsfirst donned his cap and gown and joined a handful of other seniors — of a different type — in graduating May 16.
"I consider that an honor to be with all those people who went to school there," he said. "It was something I never thought I would be able to do. Truth be told, now that I have the diploma, I don't know what to do with it."
Killsfirst's entire family — including grandchildren and great-grandchildren — were in the audience. He took his hearing aid out before the ceremony started, which he said, looking back, was a good idea.
"I would have lost what I hearing I had left if I had it in during all of that," he said.
The new graduate said the entire arena erupted with applause and congratulations when he walked across the stage. It was a roar of jubilation he didn't think was going to end. People he was related to, people he knew and people he didn't know all took to their feet to celebrate the accomplishments of a man who put his education on hold for his country and his family.
"I wasn't no hero and don't consider myself a hero," Killsfirst said. "I wanted to dedicate this graduation to those boys who didn't come back home with me."
Information from: The Lawton Constitution, http://www.swoknews.com
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