Ned Bane was surprised when he opened a letter from President William E. Cooper telling him he was eligible for an honorary bachelor of letters degree from the University of Richmond.
Bane, 81, was even more surprised to find that his son James had initiated the process, appealing to Cooper to award the degree to his father. Ned Bane, R45, had left the University in the last semester of his senior year to join the Army Air Corps during World War II. Just a few credits shy of graduation, he had been unable to return to complete his degree requirements.
Banes excitement multiplied when he learned he was among a group of about 60 people all veterans of World War II who fell short of earning their Richmond degrees. Seventeen of them attended the May 4th commencement ceremony, while the others received their degrees in the mail. One was presented to the widow of an honoree.
It is a big thing to me that he [James] would do that, said Bane who lives in Pulaski, Va. I wake up sometimes and think This cant be right.
Cooper, whose own father fought in World War II, believes that honoring the veterans this way was the right thing to do. These men and women honored us all by their many sacrifices in the name of freedom. It is fitting that we now honor them in this small but significant way. Its unfinished business for these heroes.
First in the nation
University officials believe that Richmond is the first university in the nation to award honorary degrees to all World War II veterans whose studies were interrupted by the war.
Bane passed the aviation cadet exams during his senior year, only to be sent back to the campus to await his call-up. When it finally arrived, he spent the next two years in the military. Upon returning home, Bane said, he tried to go back to school, but discovered that housing was impossible to find with so many returning GIs wanting to take advantage of educational benefits.
Bane eventually became director of Pulaskis parks and recreation department, from which he retired 20 years later.
Atypical of most of the returning vets was Rosemary Ives, W43, of Kemersville, N.C., one of two women eligible for the honorary degree. A student at Westhampton College from 1939 to 1941, she left the University and entered the U.S. Navy as a WAVE.
I thought it was a wonderful thing to do and that our country really needed us, she said. It also appealed to her to be on her own at the age of 20. She served two years as an aerographers mate a type of meteorologist. Following the war, she worked in various positions, retiring in 1983 as a claims representative for the Social Security Administration.
Robert Reinhard, R47, of Richmond was inducted into the Army infantry in February 1944 after being enrolled at the University in the summer and fall of 1943. Shipped to southern France, he was wounded and spent six months in a hospital, where he celebrated his 19th birthday. When he was released from the hospital, he went home and eventually entered the family business.
Fulfillment of a dream
Among those eligible for the honorary degree was Earl Hamner, R44, author and creator of The Waltons television show, who was unable to attend the ceremony.
Lewyn M. Oppenheim, R44, also missed commencement. However, he wrote Cooper saying miracles never cease and now a dream finally comes true.
Richmonder Willie Cross, R38, joined his three grandchildren as Richmond graduates when he received his honorary degree. Both he and Oppenheim were featured in a USA Today article and were taped for a story that was distributed to 22 Gannett-owned television stations around the country.
He was so touched by the honor that he cleared a space on his wall to hang the diploma beside his late wifes photograph. I know its one of the best academic universities in the country, he said. But it also has a heart.
The day was doubly happy for one veterans family. Both George G. Ritchie Jr., R45, of Kilmarnock, Va., and his granddaughter, Dabney Shell DeHaven of Richmond, received degrees his an honorary bachelor of letters and hers a bachelor of science degree.
At a luncheon prior to the ceremony, the honorees heard from Paul Duke, R47, retired PBS senior commentator. He reminded them that with some 30 conflicts currently raging around the world, wars remain our cultural curse.
World War II, he said, was a classic struggle of good versus evil, good guys and bad guys, big heroes and big villains. The war marked a big turning point for the United States. It was a time when we rallied from a lethargy of isolation and marched forth with a spontaneous sense of national purpose and unity.
In short, he said to the group of veterans preparing for one of their most memorable moments, [World War II] was our finest hour.