A lifelong dream: Tyler veteran finally walks for graduation, 47 years later

Published on Tuesday, 3 June 2014 23:02 - Written by REBECCA HOEFFNER rhoeffner@tylerpaper.com

A Vietnam War-era veteran finally got to walk across the stage in his graduation ceremony — 47 years after he finished college.

Tyler resident Chuck Barham, 70, finished his classes in March 1967 at the University of Georgia when the U.S. Navy required him to report for active duty before he had a chance to participate in his graduation ceremony.

He received his sheepskin diploma in the mail for his degree in business administration marketing.

In those days, as long as a student was attending college — and doing well academically — the armed forces would let them wait to report for duty.

“I had extra stress to keep my grades up,” Barham said.

Barham did report for duty in Pensacola, Florida, in 1967.

He served as an air traffic controller and helped train pilots in Meridian, Mississippi. At 22, he was older than the typical soldier.

“It was a lot of responsibility,” he said.

Even though he didn’t serve overseas, Barham felt the same rejection that other Vietnam veterans felt.

“When veterans came back, they would get spit on,” he said. “If anything was learned from that, it’s that you protest the politicians, not the soldiers.”

A few months ago, Barham was looking at his sheepskin diploma on the wall.

“I was the first one in my family to graduate from college,” he said. “I told (my wife) Sandie I’d like to walk across the stage, even if I’m the last one.”

Little did he know at the time, his wife took the hint and called the Terry College of Business at the University of Georgia to see if it was possible. The administration put the plan in motion, and Mrs. Barham gave her husband a hand-made invitation as a gift for their 48th wedding anniversary.

“It’s an emotional thing. I never thought it would happen,” he said. “I thought of all the vets who never got the chance to walk across the stage. I walked for them.”

The couple made the nearly 12-hour drive to Athens, Georgia, from Tyler to participate in the May ceremony.

The school was three times bigger than it was when Barham attended.

“I got lost,” he said with a laugh.

Barham was surprised at the star treatment he received. He got his own parking place, marked with a sign bearing his name. Instead of being last, the administration put Barham in the first seat. The dean explained Barham’s story, and invited him to walk across.

“I was very humbled to be there,” Barham said.

When he began to walk across the stage, the entire Stegeman Coliseum gave him a standing ovation.

Later, the Barhams received a thank-you note from Jill Walton, director of undergraduate student services and corporate relations for the Terry College of Business, who coordinated the Barhams’ participation in the ceremony.

“You reached out to us for help in fulfilling one of Chuck’s lifelong dreams, but in the end, it was an even better day for all of us,” she wrote.

Now, Barham has peace about walking for himself, and for the soldiers who never got the chance to walk across a stage.

“There were probably people (in that stadium) who lost someone in that war,” he said. “I was overwhelmed. … You go somewhere and do all this work and don’t get to finish. I was glad to complete the mission.”