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This Marine Dropped Out of School at 17. At 72, He’s Fulfilling His Promise to His Mom to Graduate

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PHILADELPHIA — Call him the Rip van Winkle of Benjamin Franklin High: Joseph Bond dropped out of high school at age 17, as war raged in Vietnam, leaving without a diploma.

Over 55 years, he served his country, built a career, a family, a life. But as he hit his 70s, Bond remembered the promise he made to his mother before she died: He vowed he’d earn his diploma someday.

On June 13, Bond, a 72-year-old great-grandfather, will graduate from Ben Franklin’s Educational Options Program, a night school that allows adult students who disengaged as youth to finish what they started.

“I wake up all these years later, and I’m the one with the gray beard,” said Bond. “It was one of my goals before I pass, to get that high school diploma.”

‘The furthest thing from my mind’

Bond was born in South Philadelphia, then moved to North Philadelphia with his parents, four brothers and a sister. He liked Ben Franklin fine as a student in the 1960s, but got into trouble for fighting as he passed through tough neighborhoods, and a judge gave him a choice.

“He said, ‘Either wear pinstripes, or wear green,'” Bond remembered. Service to his country felt like a better option than jail, so Bond enlisted in the Marines, and it was off to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.

It was a sea change, difficult in many ways.

“At first, I was kind of rebellious, and the instructors were tough. Their whole job is to break you down and build you back up. But I realized if I rebelled, I wouldn’t graduate,” Bond said.

Once he settled into Marine life, Bond thoroughly enjoyed the physical part of the job. He had never shot a pistol before, and found he excelled at it.

Bond hadn’t visited much beyond Philadelphia, but the military took him to Vietnam and Japan. He worked as a range coach, helping other Marines with their rifle skills.

He returned to Philadelphia in the mid-1970s. At first, civilian life was a struggle, particularly because of post-traumatic stress disorder, but Bond eventually got a city job, working as an equipment operator with the Philadelphia Water Department.

Life was busy, with Bond building a family, and there was no time for school. But in 1977, his mother, Elizabeth Bond, was in her final days.

“When she died, I made a promise to her — that I would get my diploma, because her whole thing was for all of her kids to get an education,” Bond said. The promise felt elusive at times — he had three children and a lot of responsibilities. In 1995, he joined the Army National Guard, and in 2002, he was called up to active duty, deploying to Iraq for Operation Enduring Freedom.

“I was focused on my family duties, making sure that my kids would have a chance to get a good education,” Bond said. “To be honest, school for me was the furthest thing from my mind. I just wanted to take care of my family.”

Back to school

After 35 years as a city employee, Bond retired in 2013.

At this point, he had 10 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, and he had more time on his hands, his family let him know.

“They kept getting on me about going back to school,” he said. Finally, in 2023, he was ready to show his grandchildren — the youngest of whom is in seventh grade — and great-grands that it’s never too late to learn.

“You can’t tell somebody to do something you’re not going to do,” he said. “Sometimes in life, you have voids that need to be filled. This was one of the voids I needed to fill.”

Returning to high school 50-plus years after last leaving was daunting, but Bond was determined to stick the landing this time, and was astonished at what he could push himself to do, even after a decades-long gap.

“I never did like English or art, and those are two of my best subjects now,” said Bond. “I enjoyed school more now than I did when I was coming here before.”

Yvonna Walls, Bond’s art teacher, said he was reserved and quiet when he first entered her class.

“He thought he wasn’t going to be able to accomplish the things that we were going to ask of him in class,” Walls said. He was a little fuzzy on technology, and had never really been asked to draw.

“He would always say, ‘I have never done this before,’ or ‘I haven’t done this in so long,'” said Walls. “But he was willing to try and to persevere through any assignment he was given. Sometimes he would say, ‘Hey can I take this home and bring it back to you tomorrow?’ And he always did.'”

‘Dream come true’

Walls was a little astonished at the social side of things — after worrying what it would be like returning to school with people who were his grandchildren’s age, he found he fit in really well.

“Nobody never disrespected me,” he said. “I was a little surprised about that. Sometimes the younger people can be a little disrespectful. I’m like a grandfather to just about everybody in here. I look up to them, they look up to me, we sit down and we talk.”

He had an unexpected thrill, too — he attended his high school prom, and was crowned prom king.

“It was a dream come true,” said Bond.

Now that graduation is around the corner, he’s hoping his family doesn’t throw him a party — he’s a low-key kind of guy. But he has big plans for his long-delayed diploma.

“I’m going to blow it up, get it 20 by 30,” Bond said. “As soon as you come in the living room, it’s going to be right there looking in your face.”

___

©2024 The Philadelphia Inquirer, LLC. Visit at inquirer.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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