ELYRIA — Denver Allan Kelly proudly showed off the bright red T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Oberlin H.S. 12,” beneath which were lines of small white letters naming members of this year’s graduating class, including his.
“I’ve got my cap and gown in the closet,” Kelly said.
While he’s clearly looking forward to tonight’s commencement ceremonies at Finney Chapel on the Oberlin College campus, Kelly won’t be soaping his car windows with “Class of 2012” or looking to collect a bundle of cash during a graduation party.
His diploma is an honor long deferred.
The 91-year-old Elyria man was a member of the Oberlin High School Class of 1941, but never got to walk with his classmates due to his being in the U.S. Army by the time graduation ceremonies rolled around.
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A member of the 190th Field Artillery Group, Kelly was in the “fourth wave” to land in Normandy, France, on June 7, 1944, during World War II.
“You could have walked on the boats across the English Channel … there were so many,” Kelly recalled.
Despite landing a day behind the deadly D-Day landing of June 6, Navy warships were still pounding the coast and areas inland.
“They were firing those big 16-inch guns right over our heads,” Kelly said.
Kelly’s introduction to the war came immediately when he was riding a Caterpillar tractor that was hit by a mine as it rolled off a landing craft.
“It blew up the tracks,” Kelly said. “We let it set and got another Caterpillar.”
Kelly’s unit was supposed to get 30 miles inland after landing, but wound up getting hung up after a half-mile because of the hedgerows.
“They trapped our tanks,” Kelly said. “We were in the hedgerows for five days.”
Mounds of earth dating to Roman times, hedgerows served as property boundaries, and kept herds of animals in fields, but proved deadly to American troops and machinery.
Son of the late Eva Magdalene Kelly and Thomas Kelly, Denver Kelly was separated from his two sisters and two brothers as a young boy after his father died at an early age, and raising five children became too much for his mother.
The siblings wound up being dispersed to orphanages and foster homes, including Oberlin’s old Green Acres home, where Kelly went.
He wound up living for a time with the family who owned and operated Gibson’s Bakery.
“I worked half a day and went to school half a day,” Kelly said. “That’s why I was 21 when it came time to graduate.”
Flipping pages in a neatly constructed scrapbook presented to him for his 90th birthday by a friend of his second wife, Barbara, Kelly came upon photos and news clippings that elicited memories of various wartime episodes, some funny, others not.
“I was declared AWOL once and spent two weeks washing every damned window in the barracks,” Kelly said.
Then there was the time he was assigned to help blow up a fuel depot during the Battle of the Bulge in the winter of 1944.
It was during the same time period when he and fellow troops near Malmedy received news of the infamous massacre there of about 113 American POWs by the Germans.
The war ended for Kelly’s unit in Czechoslovakia, where the GIs met up with Russian troops.
“All they had were horse-drawn wagons at that point,” Kelly recalled. “We’d (the Allies) supplied them with a lot of equipment, but so much had been destroyed.”
After settling into civilian life again back, Kelly went to work for Elyria’s Western Automatic Co., a forerunner of Moen Inc., where he worked his way up to the position of payroll supervisor.
Kelly met his second wife, Barbara, at the company.
“She worked for me at the time, but now she’s my boss,” he joked.
Kelly, who turns 92 in August, retired in 1985 after 38 years.
Kelly’s diploma is made possible through a state program established several years ago to help veterans who never received high school diplomas for a variety of reasons including military service.
Contact Steve Fogarty at 329-7146 or email@example.com.