First Person: Graduating High School At 83
This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. For some young men, signing up to fight during wartime seems more important finishing high school. The San Diego County Board of Education is recognized that fact and allow San Diegans whose education was interrupted by more to get honorary diplomas. The boards operation recognition gives degrees to veterans of Vietnam, Korea and World War II and to Japanese-Americans who were detained in internment camp's. The programs latest Henri Norm Johnson received his degree last weekend is on -- part of our ongoing first person he shares his story. History didn't interest me. English forget it. I would get -- ditch and go down to the hot dog stand. A lot of us would meet down there. My name is Norm Johnson. Receiving my high school diploma at 83. I was born in Burbank, California in 1933 on Valentine's Day. My mother passed away. I was 12 years old. My mother sister came and got me and brought me down to San Diego, I was becoming too wild. Eventually, I got to San Diego High School, the old guy Castle. I loved that school but I ditched all the time. I guess I had a big chip on my shoulder from losing my mom and my dad. My rebellious part, I started ditching school and in those years if you ditched school the cops would come looking for you. The actual police would take you to jail until your parents came and got you. If you did it enough times, like I did, I ended up in truancy court. The judge said he was sending me to detention school and he would give me 30 days to join the service. We went to the Naval recruiting station in their quota was field. I didn't want to be a Marine, I'm not a big guy. I did not want to march on dirt in the Army. I said Air Force. I went into the Air Force on April 23 I went into the Air Force on April 23, 1950. The Korean War broke out in June. General LeMay head of the strategic Air Force wanted as many Air Force strategic troops as he could get into Tokyo and Korea. Reading in the Air Force, I thought I would fly. I went by boat and eventually stationed in Tokyo. I decided to go to the Institute, the home of the key to and due to. I was asked what degree I had. I started to learn judo. I'm now back in I got orders to report to the United States Embassy in Tokyo. There were 16 of us in their and guess who walks in? General MacArthur. The kernel explained we were going to be his personal family bodyguards. We became Secret Service. I had to sign some paperwork and I was not to talk about anything that I saw, heard or did for 75 years. I came home to San Diego, bummed around for a few months. I began dancing in the nightclubs downtown in San Diego. We would make extra money from dance contests. I wanted to get out of San Diego so I went to Hollywood to be a movie star. I got into a couple movies. I danced in "Jailhouse rock" with Elvis and we became good friends. I would go through some moves with him and I taught him a sleeper hold. He was a cool guy. Eventually, I started doing public relations for various entertainers in Las Vegas. I moved to Vegas in November 1965 and I handled Wayne Newton, Lola fell on a, Robert Goulet. I'm not a name dropper but if you name someone I probably known them. A guy would call you up and ask me for party. That would be Robert Goulet. I've met kings and queens. I've traveled the world. I have daughters. I always emphasized they needed their high school diploma. You will be a nobody without your diploma is what I would tell them. I've had a great life. I've done things I've never should've been allowed to do considering what kind of a kid I was before I got into the Air Force. I got lucky, most people don't get lucky like I did. That high school diploma will be important to me. I won't be able to toss my hat in the air or walk across the stage in a robe, I will have my diploma. It legitimizes my life, you might say. Norm Johnson received his diploma last week. He turns 84 tomorrow. That first person feature was produced by Michael Lipkin. Be sure to watch KPBS evening edition at 5 and 6:30 tonight. Join us tomorrow for KPBS Midday Edition at noon. If you ever miss a show you can check out the podcast at tran 29/podcast.
Norm Johnson served as a military bodyguard to General Douglas MacArthur and danced with Elvis Presley in "Jailhouse Rock." He covered the Watts riots as a reporter and founded the Mint 400 desert race in Las Vegas.
But the one accomplishment he's been waiting decades for? Graduating high school. A repeat truant, Johnson was given a choice by a truancy judge: enroll in detention school or join the military. So he dropped out of San Diego High School and enlisted with the Air Force just a few months before the Korean War broke out.
Johnson returned to San Diego last week as part of the County Board of Education's "Operation Recognition," which gives degrees to veterans and Japanese-Americans who were detained in internment camps.
As part of our First Person series, Johnson shares why getting that diploma is so important to him.