Veteran surprised with high school diploma 53 years after he was supposed to graduate

HANOVER, Va. (WRIC) — Harry Watts is a member of the Patrick Henry High School Class of 1964. While his classmates in Hanover were enjoying their senior year, Watts was serving his country in Vietnam.

The then 17-year-old enlisted in the Air Force and never finished high school although he made a promise to his father.

“I said I’m going to do this Dad, but I’m going to get an education,” Watts remembers. “One way or the other, I’ll get an education.”

He went on to serve two tours in Vietnam as a combat photographer and a total of 13 years in the Air Force, plus eight years in the Army before retiring and coming back home to Virginia.

Watts now volunteers for On Faith Ministries, a non-profit dedicated to helping people in need.

“I do it because I’m helping my fellow man,” explains Watts, “I love it because I love people.”

Despite the joy the 73-year-old discovered lending a hand to the less fortunate, something was missing.

Watts has long ago earned his GED, but still longed for his high school diploma. It bothered him so much, he didn’t feel comfortable attending class reunions.

He also mentioned his dream to Open Faith Ministries Executive Director Maria Gilliland.

“I thought well that seems kind of small. I think I can make that happen, so we did,” she says.

Gilliland secretly reached out to the administration at Patrick Henry High School and the Hanover County School Board.

It took some time, but ultimately the district agreed Watts should receive his long-anticipated honorary diploma.

In November, Watt’s wife brought her husband to the high school’s Veteran’s Day Assembly under the ruse that he was there to take photos for On Faith Ministries.

It quickly became clear something else was in the air when the school principal called Watts to the podium to thank him for his service and hand him that long-anticipated diploma.

“At that point, I saw such emotion and such joy,” recalls Gilliland, “Because he had actually fulfilled a dream that he thought was never going to come true.”

“It was a welcome home. I was home and I felt that way and I felt good,” adds Watts.

“It was a welcome home. I was home and I felt that way and I felt good.”

He has two goals now: The first is to attend his class reunion.

The other is to help On Faith Ministries find a new home. The non-profit needs space to operate and store the toys, food and clothing it collects for people who need it.

Oh, and if good things happen to good people, Watts is living proof. After returning home to Virginia, he ran into his school sweetheart, Tina. The two fell in love, again, and married in early 2000.

Never miss another Facebook post from 8News

Find 8News on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram; send your news tips to