'The best day of my life': New Class of '45 grad never gave up

Sunday, September 1, 2013
Shelbyville Housing Authority GED instructor Billy Melton (left) and Tom Neese enjoy a laugh during Neese's graduation celebration. Melton was instrumental in helping Neese enroll and pursue his GED, prior to being awarded an honorary high school diploma under a revitalized state program. (T-G Photo by Sherry Miller)

Men and women who participated in World War II are often referred to as part of "The Greatest Generation," as television journalist Tom Brokaw did in his 1998 book by the same name.

"They are the greatest generation any society has produced," according to his writings. They are a "generation of towering achievement and modest demeanor."


Family played an important part in Mr. Neese's graduation day celebration. Pictured are: (seated) Ruth and Tom Neese; (standing, from left) Peggy Webb, Mari Kay Faulk, Shaun Webb, Rosemarie Neese-Harris, Shannon Neese, Debbie Crosslin, Abbi Faulk and Jackie Crosslin. (T-G Photo by Sherry Miller)

Bedford County recently recognized the towering achievement of one of its own, James T. (Tom) Neese of Wartrace.

Two days prior to his 86th birthday, Neese received his high school diploma, achieving a life-long goal that he had never given up on obtaining.

"This is the best day of my life," the World War II veteran declared as he accepted an honorary high school diploma from Shelbyville Central High School -- dated Spring 1945 -- from Bedford County School superintendent Don Embry.

Family, friends and local dignitaries had gathered at the Shelbyville Housing Authority (SHA) for what SHA executive director Hershel Thrasher called an "informal, formal ceremony." Following the ceremony, a party befitting any high school graduate was held in Neese's honor.

Like many of his generation, Neese left school after the seventh grade to work and help support his family. He later joined the Army Air Corps, which became known as the U.S. Air Force. During his two periods of service between 1945 and 1948, he was awarded the WWII Victory Medal and the Army of Occupation Medal.

Ruth Neese joins her husband Tom as he proudly displays his high school diploma. (T-G Photo by Sherry Miller)

His greatest desire, however, was to earn his high school diploma. He enrolled and became the oldest GED student the SHA program had, according to Thrasher. He was well on his way to obtaining a GED when illness struck.

"He had enough points to get a GED," said instructor Billy Melton. "It was so important to him ... All he needed to do was pass four tests."

Neese passed three tests, but after several attempts, still fell just slightly short of passing the math portion.

In what he called "divine reasoning," Thrasher happened to meet someone who told him of Tennessee Code Annotated 49-2-119, a law which allows veterans who did not receive a high school diploma because of their service to now be awarded their diploma.

Shelbyville Housing Authority executive director Hershel Thrasher (center) was emcee for what he called an "informal, formal ceremony" in which James T. (Tom) Neese was bestowed an honorary high school diploma. Pictured in the background are SHA board chairman Jenni Feldhaus (left) and Sen. Jim Tracy (right). (T-G Photo by Sherry Miller)

Neese is the first veteran to receive his honorary diploma in Bedford County since 2001, when a large group of veterans attended a special ceremony, according to the school system's web site.

In addition to the diploma presentation by Embry, Neese was awarded an American flag by State Rep. Pat Marsh and a Tennessee Blue Book by State Sen. Jim Tracy. A congratulatory letter from Gov. Bill Haslam was presented to Neese by retired Sgt. Major Larry Williams, a local veteran's advocate.

What is next for Neese?

Many local veterans were heard encouraging Neese to take one of the upcoming Honor Flights, which are trips to Washington, D.C. offered free of charge to veterans so they can see the monuments of the wars in which they fought.

After all, for a man like Neese who doesn't believe in giving up -- well, the sky's the limit!

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