FAIRMONT - In December 1944, gas was 61 cents a gallon. Bread was 9 cents a loaf. Minimum wage was 30 cents. American military forces were fighting valiantly in the Battle of the Bulge, a World War II endeavor that eventually would tally over 81,000 U.S. casualties.
When a plea went out for more troops, six of the seven senior boys at Ceylon High School answered the call and enlisted in the military. Harold Knuth was one of those young men.
At the time, the superintendent told the boys that they would be awarded their high school diplomas when they returned, based on the courses they already had completed, combined with the classes they would take during their service, Knuth said.
Harold Knuth, left, talks with Don Tietje, past district commander with the American Legion, and Ceylon’s Post Commander Doug Leiding, prior to the Fairmont Area School Board awarding Knuth with his high school diploma Tuesday evening.
It didn't happen that way.
"When I got back, I went to the superintendent of schools, and I asked him for my diploma," Knuth said. "I was told: You didn't finish school.'"
When Knuth presented the superintendent with validation of his additional education in the Navy, the school administrator tore up the papers and threw them away, telling Knuth: "I'll see you in the bread line."
Fast forward 69 years. Fairmont Superintendent Joe Brown received an email from Joel Marotz, Knuth's son-in-law, explaining Knuth's situation. Brown was moved by the story and began the process to correct the situation.
On Tuesday, 87-year-old Harold Knuth became a high school graduate. Brown awarded Knuth a diploma, identical to the one he should have received upon his discharge. The specially ordered document bears the date of May 24, 1945, which was the actual commencement date for his class.
"The greatest part of my job is handing out diplomas, but this is special," said Diane Gerhardt, Fairmont School Board chairman on Tuesday. "We're very proud we get to give this to you."
A soft-spoken, unassuming man, Knuth downplays the uniqueness of his situation. He doesn't feel he did anything special.
"At the time, military people were being mowed down like an alfalfa field," he said, during an interview with the Sentinel.
In December 1944, he was 18 and knew that once he was out of school, he would be drafted into the Army. Instead, he and his fellow male classmates enlisted early so they had their choice of the military branches.
Knuth thinks the other boys joined the Navy as well, but he lost touch with them.
"Whatever happened, I have no idea," he said, but he thought the one boy who didn't leave school in December later joined the military after graduation.
After boot camp at Great Lakes, Ill., Knuth went to California where he was stationed aboard a munitions ship. When the ship set sail to deliver the ammunition to troops and vessels in the Marshall Islands, it carried a load of 80,000 tons, he said. Because of the immense weight, the ship could only travel about 15 miles an hour.
Knuth's ship was a Merchant Marine vessel. He was with the first Navy group to man such a vessel. Because of the volatile nature of their cargo and the strong possibility of enemy attack, the Merchant Marines were having a difficult time finding civilian crew members for their ships.
After a 1 1/2-year stint in the Navy, Knuth returned to Martin County. When the superintendent denied his request for a diploma, Knuth accepted it. He had just spent the last 18 months "taking orders" so it didn't occur to him to question authority.
Going back to school for the diploma wasn't an option. Getting a job and making a living was a top priority.
"When you came back (from active duty), everybody was looking for work," he said.
He enjoyed working with wood, so he worked with an uncle in the construction trade for a few years, before he started farming with his wife's parents. During the winter months, he traveled to Florida, where his sister lived.
My sister "said there was a lot of building going on there, and they were looking for workers," Knuth said.
So he and wife Elverna packed up their infant son, loaded their car and moved to Homestead, Fla., for seasonal work.
In addition to farming, Knuth worked for an Estherville construction company. In 1966, he worked on a new addition to the hospital and built a rectory for the priests. His work impressed the nun in charge.
"She told me, 'We could use somebody like you,'" Knuth said.
He debated taking the job, which involved maintenance and overseeing the building and grounds at the hospital. He decided to give it a try.
"I got weekends off," he chuckled.
After 27 years, he retired in 1991.
Nowadays, he jokes that his only job is opening the mail, but he does admit to helping his son farm, as well as tending a large garden.
He and Elverna raised four children, a son and three daughters, whom he affectionately calls "a jack and three jokers."
He was never in a bread line.