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Air Force Veteran Finally Graduates 50 Years Later

Vietnam War kept Bob Kroener from walking across stage with USC classmates in 1971


spinner image a photo of bob kroener at his commencement ceremony left next to a photo of him in military uniform fifty years earlier right
Courtesy Bob Kroener

Having to wait an extra year to participate in his graduation ceremony due to the coronavirus pandemic paled in comparison to the 49 years that had already passed for Bob Kroener, 78, who finally attended his graduate-school commencement on May 17.

The now-retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and civil engineer missed his pomp and circumstance in 1971 due to his deployment during the Vietnam War. So, when he was thumbing through the University of Southern California's alumni magazine a few years ago and saw pictures of that year's graduation festivities he felt it was finally his time to walk across the stage.

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"I was sitting there looking at it and I thought, You know, I never got to go through graduation,” he said. “So I picked up the phone, and I called over to the Marshall School of Business."

During the call, USC officials inquired if he had received his diploma and whether he had other information that would help them locate his decades-old records. The school also asked for his student ID number, to which he replied, “I'm too old for that, we only had a Social Security number."

Weeks later, school officials were able to dig out his class records, even making note of his impressive grades. Kroener was originally approved to attend a graduation ceremony in 2020 but was forced by the pandemic to delay until this year.

Back to school

The road to Southern California started north of the border. Then a captain in the Air Force after receiving an undergraduate degree from the University of Detroit, Kroener was stationed at a military base in Canada when he learned that he secured one of 26 government-funded spots offered to Air Force officers for graduate school. From a snow-covered mountaintop in Newfoundland he was informed of the schools he could apply to.

"I heard the University of Southern California and I said, ‘I'll take it. I'm going back to sit on the beach after being in 110 inches of snow for a year.’ It wasn't too hard of a decision to make,” said Kroener.

However, it wasn't just the weather that Kroener appreciated about going to school in Los Angeles. He was able to take advantage of the wide variety of corporations that would open doors to students like himself.

"I went to [oil company] Atlantic Richfield to do a paper, I went to Mattel toy company to do a paper, I went to Continental Airlines to basically write a master's thesis, myself and another captain,” he said. “All you had to do was say you're a student doing graduate work at USC. And I mean, they just opened the doors."

Kroener earned his MBA in 1971, but before the graduation ceremony took place he was deployed to Robins Air Force Base in Georgia. As part of his duties, he managed combat engineering teams by setting up their directives and getting them all the equipment needed to prepare for combat in Vietnam. He eventually retired as a lieutenant colonel in 1993.

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Graduation Day arrives at last

Like most commencement ceremonies this year, graduates are given a limited number of tickets, but that hasn't made Kroener any less excited.

He drove from his home in Arizona to California for the May 17 outdoor commencement ceremony at the Los Angeles Coliseum. The sash he ordered from the USC bookstore was custom-made with “1971” and the Air Force crest emblazoned on it.

Meanwhile, many of his family members who weren't able to attend the festivities in person watched it via livestream.

In addition to his three children, it's particularly special to Kroener that his three grandchildren witnessed the occasion. His oldest grandson, who has one more semester of college to go, watched his grandfather's ceremony in advance of his own.

"He'll be able to watch it on TV and see what other students are like. He's in finance himself and will see all the business school graduates. So I think he'll be a little excited to see what Grandpa does,” Kroener said.

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