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At long last, a high school diploma for local 102-year-old man

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Leon Swendsen came prepared for the honor he had waited a lifetime to receive.

The 102-year-old, donning a graduation cap and gown, made his way Tuesday to the front of the room as a small student orchestra filled the room with "Pomp and Circumstance." His eyes damp, leaning on his cane for support, he accepted an honorary diploma from Rochester Public Schools.

Nearly 85 years ago, at 18, a diploma could have meant job opportunities or a chance at college, but Swendsen found success without it. Now, at 102, a life lived showed him that it could mean so much more that he would have thought.

"Usually, during my graduation speeches I challenge the graduates to take the learning they have received in their time in our district to go out and make a difference," Superintendent Michael Muñoz said to a crowd on its feet. "This afternoon, I thank you for the difference you have made for our country and in the lives of so many people."

Though Swendsen's education was cut short, he quickly learned its value. Through his accomplishments and contributions — time in the Army, millions of miles logged busing people all over the country and raising a three kids — the one thing that kept nagging him was that diploma.

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"It's been a long time — a long time since I've been in school, man oh man," Swendsen said, gripping his diploma. "I've seen a lot of things, but this affects me more than anything."

'A long time since school'

At 16, Swendsen left high school to help out on his parents farm near Culver, about 30 minutes northwest of Duluth. The year was 1930 and the family's livelihood was more pressing than attaining a high school education.

At the time, an eighth-grade education qualified you for a well -paying job, so Swendsen began working on the family farm and delivering meat and helping out around his father's butcher shop.

A sister and others went off to college, "but I had to work," he said.

He became truck driver after he turned 18, and later, beginning in 1940, he drove for Greyhound, covering countless miles throughout the country. As World War II broke out, Swendsen received deferments from service because as a bus driver he shuffled GIs and draftees around the country.

But, his daughter, Shelly Swendsen said, he began "feeling guilty about watching all these guys going off to war" and enlisted in 1943. He served in France and Germany as a cook for the supply battery of the Army's 569th Field Artillery.

Upon his return, he worked as a Greyhound bus driver for 37 years and had a perfect safety record, never having an accident while driving millions of miles across the country.

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Swendsen moved to Rochester about 20 years ago with his wife, Madalynne, to be near family.

The quest for a diploma

Swendsen's education began in a one-room school house in Saint Louis County.

So as his desire for a diploma continued to come up in the last decade, his daughter Shelly looked into contacting the schools he attended, but all have since closed. That's when she got the idea to contact Muñoz. He knew he had to help out when he heard the story.

"I can tell you value education and understand its importance," Muñoz said during the brief ceremony. "However, I would argue that the learning you've experienced throughout your life is just as valuable as anything you could have learned from a textbook."

"You have faced situations that many of our graduates could not comprehend, but in the end you have been able to meet your challenges and be successful to contribute so much to the life of others," he continued.

Shelly said lifelong learning and self-improvement was something her parents instilled in her. While college was important, it wasn't required, she said, but "we needed to make sure that we did something in society."

All these years later, that still holds true. And for Swendsen, the diploma isn't necessarily a marker of his own contributions to society, rather it's a way to acknowledge all that life taught him, despite his formal education being cut short.

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"I'm a sentimental guy and anything like this affects me because for one thing, I don't expect anything," Swendsen said. "It's something I'll never forget."

03-07 leon swendsen 01 sj.jpg
Leon Swendsen holds his Honorary Diploma from Rochester Public Schools that he received Tuesday afternoon during a meeting of the Rochester School Board at the Edison Building. Swendsen is 102.

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