August 29, 2014

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70 years later, man receives Lorain High School diploma

Leonard Puma, of McKeesport, Pa., a former student at Lorain High School, holds the diploma that was issued to him by Lorain Schools 70 years after he attended. COURTESY PHOTO

Leonard Puma, of McKeesport, Pa., a former student at Lorain High School, holds the diploma that was issued to him by Lorain Schools 70 years after he attended. COURTESY PHOTO

LORAIN — Nine dollars.

That’s what prevented Leonard Puma from graduating high school.

“I couldn’t stand to be embarrassed at graduation with those guys because I didn’t have the money for a suit,” Puma said. “And I didn’t want to bother my mother for a $9 suit.”

diploma

Leonard Puma holds his diploma.

These were the days when Puma’s mother would give him a dime to go to the butcher shop and he would return with 8 inches of bologna and a soup bone.

Instead of facing the embarrassment at graduation, Puma begged his parents to sign off allowing him to enlist in the Navy when he was just 17. Two days after his 17th birthday, they did and for four years, he worked as a machinist in the Navy, serving in the Mediterranean, North Africa, and Sicily; the Pacific, and even Cuba.

More than 70 years later, Puma finally has received something he had always regretted not getting — his high school diploma.

The World War II veteran certainly made a good life for himself and his family without it, rising through the ranks of the Ironworkers Local No. 3 near Pittsburgh to eventually become president. His three, four-year terms brought him respect and name recognition, which spurred him on to become business manager of the PittsburghBuilding and Construction Trade Councils, negotiating for all of the local unions.

During his two four-year terms there, he negotiated an unheard of contract at the time that would guarantee no strikes, no walk-offs and no disputes during construction of the InternationalAirport in Pittsburgh, if the county agreed to use all union labor. They did, and the airport stands as a testament to his ingenuity.

Puma retired in 1990 at the age of 65.

“I wanted to give these younger guys a chance to come up,” he said.

But he wasn’t ready to relax quite yet.

The mayor in McKeesport, Pa., where Puma currently resides, said Puma should run for state constable. So, he did, and he was elected to three consecutive terms. As constable, Puma would convey prisoners from the county jail to court or to prison.

While he enjoyed the job, he was truly ready to finally retire, he said.

Once he did, he realized he was missing something.

“As you can see, I never had the time to go for my diploma,” he said. “The only thing I regret is that I never went to 12th grade.”

This summer, he drove to Lorain from McKeesport to see what he needed to do. When he got here, the only people he found were two maintenance workers. School wasn’t in session. So, he went home empty handed.

But he wasn’t ready to give up.

Puma spoke with a friend of his who is a high school principal in McKeesport to see if he could help. He tried, but didn’t make any progress. Instead, he asked the McKeesport school board if they would present Puma with a diploma. The school board agreed right away.

Puma, however, had hoped for a diploma from his alma mater.

When he spoke to his daughter, admitting to her for the first time that he had never received his high school diploma, she was touched.

“Here he was, a labor union leader, and he never shared this with anyone,” said Lisa Puma, of Alexandria, Va.. “It always bothered him that he never received it.”

She emailed the Lorain Schools and received a response the same day. The district was more than willing to present Puma with a diploma.

“She did everything,” Puma said proudly. “That daughter of mine surprised the hell out of me.”

Puma’s wife, Ruth; his son, Mark; daughter-in-law, Harriet; and grandchildren Nicole and Gianna surprised Puma with the diploma last weekend in McKeesport. Lisa Puma was present via satellite.

“That was beautiful,” Puma said. “It was really nice of those people (the school district). I relish it.”

Lorain Schools Superintendent Tom Tucker said the district has received similar requests over the years, but they are becoming less frequent.

“We get some,” Tucker said. “Not a lot lately. Most of them are local. This is the first one (in recent years) from out of town.”

And it was important to make sure Puma got his.

“We got it done pretty fast,” Tucker said. “The school board signed it, and we sent it out along with an old photograph of the high school.”

Puma showed the photo to his family pointing to a door he used to use to go over to the candy store.

“He was in shock,” Lisa Puma said of her father’s reaction to the diploma. “And he was concerned about all of the people who went through all of that trouble for him. He thought it was a dead end. But he was very humbled and appreciative. Let’s face it, he’s not going to use it to get into college at 88 years old. He just needed to have closure.”

Contact Christina Jolliffe at 329-7155 or ctnews@chroniclet.com.