Operation Recognition: 90 year old among veterans given high school diplomas

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STEELTON, Pa. -- For Alfred Carricato, it was a graduation day 70 years in the making, and a promise fulfilled to his mother.

Carricato, a World War II navy veteran, was among five servicemen honored with diplomas Wednesday at Steelton-Highspire High School. Four of the honorees have passed away. Eugene Donato, George Smith, and Joseph Donato all served in World War II. Robert Zeigler earned a Purple Heart in the Korean War. All were originally of Steelton, all had family members accept diplomas on their behalf.

Carricato, a lifelong Steelton resident, was there, however. He wouldn't miss the opportunity. Seventy years earlier, he made a promise to his mother that when he returned from World War II, he would finish high school and get his diploma.

"This makes my mom so happy," he said, sobbing. "My mom never went to school. She never had an education, never knew how to read and write. She always said 'You gotta graduate to put your wife and kids through school."

Carricato was able to honor his mother thanks to a project called Operation Recognition. Its creator, Joe Ulrich, is a maintenance worker at Steelton-Highspire. More importantly, he's also a veteran, serving with the U.S. Marines in Vietnam.

Like the men honored Wednesday, he too enlisted before graduating high school, and didn't graduate for 37 years later.

With the help of a few elementary school classes, Ulrich found veterans from Steelton who left for war before receiving their diplomas. Carricato, he said, was discovered when he made his pitch for Operation Recognition in front of the school board.

"Afterward someone said, "Did you hear what Mary said? Her father served in World War II."

Mary is Mary Carricato, the Steelton-Highspire School Board President and Alfred's daughter. The connection was made. Alfred found a way to get his diploma for his mom.

Carricato enlisted in the United States Navy in 1944 and served on the U.S.S. Chicago. He returned home in 1946. He took summer school classes at Steelton High School when he came back. His hopes, however, of finishing his high school requirements soon lost priority.

"I come back from the Navy and I'm 20 years old, and I have a girlfriend. You need money with a girlfriend," he joked.

Carricato soon began working at Bethlehem Steel, and raised five children.

Wednesday's ceremony was held in front of the Steelton-Highspire Elementary School children who helped make Operation Recognition a reality. The goal of the project, Ulrich said, was to connect children to veterans while showing the importance of education.

"It's so fitting to have this ceremony in front of students," said State Representative Patty Kim (D-Dauphin), "to show that people want this diploma. It's not something you have to do."

Ulrich continued, "They're going to leave here talking about this all summer long. And that's what its all about."