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posted: 6/20/2010 12:01 AM

Sons make dream come true for Vernon Hills father

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  • Attorney Hal Winer, center, received his high school diploma during a recent Honor Flight trip. His sons, Evan, left, and David are with him in his Waukegan office.

      Attorney Hal Winer, center, received his high school diploma during a recent Honor Flight trip. His sons, Evan, left, and David are with him in his Waukegan office.
    Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

 
 

If Father's Day were to get a theme song, "Little Things Mean A Lot" would have to be among the leading contenders.

Gifts of a belt handmade at a Scout meeting, a hastily-purchased greeting card or a simple hug and a "Thanks, dad," are usually enough to keep those of the fraternal persuasion going for another year.

To a man who survived World War II, built a successful law practice over 50 years and raised a family, a high school diploma might seem like a little thing.

But when Hal Winer of Vernon Hills finally received his high school sheepskin last month through a covert operation launched by his son, David, he felt like he was 23,000 feet in the air.

And he really was 23,000 feet in the air, on his way home from a trip to visit the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., on an Honor Flight for veterans.

"As soon as I realized what it was, I started crying," Hal said of the moment. "And I knew right away that David had to have been behind it."

In 1942, Hal was a sophomore at Benjamin Franklin High School in Rochester, N.Y., planning to attend school and playing pickup baseball games behind the building that would eventually become the first headquarters for Xerox Corp.

But one of the things war does best is change the plans of everyone in its path and, as a resident of the factory-intensive city, Hal was no exception.

There were plenty of jobs to be done as the country threw its industrial might into the battles overseas, and the companies dispatched recruiters to go door-to-door looking for workers.

"There weren't enough adults to fill all the jobs, and the rule was that if you were old enough to quit school but too young for the military you were expected to go to work," Hal said. "So they knocked on the door one day, and I went to work the next."

He spent two years in the machine shop at Bausch and Lomb, making the machinery that would grind precision lenses for binoculars, bomber sights and periscopes.

Winer was drafted in 1945, stationed in Okinawa and Korea with the Army and picked up a GED certificate after he was discharged.

Though he went on to college and law school on the GI Bill, and had a distinguished career as a private defense attorney and prosecutor for Deerfield and Vernon Hills, he never got past the idea something was missing.

"I used to joke about it, say things like I did pretty well for a kid who dropped out of high school," he said. "But there is an order to life; you go to high school, you go to college, then you do all the rest, and I always regretted not having a complete resume."

When Hal got a seat on the May 12 Honor Flight from Chicago and a chance to join his fellow veterans on a trip to the memorial, his son saw an opportunity.

David, who was going along on the trip as a volunteer escort for a wheelchair-bound veteran, decided to use his father's visit to his past to square things.

First, he had to find out exactly where his father had gone to high school, and David, who is also an attorney from Vernon Hills, decided a little verbal slight-of-hand would do the trick.

"I knew he was a fan of this television show that covers crime stories all over the country," David said. "So one day I called him up and said the show was doing a piece on a high school kid from Rochester, but I couldn't remember the name of the school.

"Once he asked me if it was Ben Franklin, I had all I needed to work with," David said.

He called the school, and was referred to the district headquarters where spokesman Tom Petronio said they were more than willing to help out.

"We have actually had several requests to issue diplomas for veterans like Mr. Winer in connection with the Honor Flights," Petronio said. "Their contributions to our nation are immeasurable, and it is our privilege to play a small role in bringing some closure to a period of their lives where they sacrificed so much."

The diploma was issued and mailed to David, who found another willing co-conspirator in the surprise effort in Mary Pettinato, president of Honor Flight Chicago.

Pettinato, who heads up the local effort to send as many veterans as possible to visit the memorial in the company of their comrades, designed a plan in which the diploma could be given to Hal on the plane.

As the vets were on their way back to Chicago, Pettinato arranged to have someone walk up to Hal's seat and tell him he had received some mail.

"There were actually quite a few people on the plane who knew what was going to happen, so we all leaned in to watch," Pettinato said. "He opened the envelope, stared at the document and his face just lit up - it was an absolutely wonderful moment."

The importance wasn't lost on Evan Winer, another of Hal's sons and a member of the family law firm, who said it was an honor for his father and he was proud of the way his brother made it happen.

And, he couldn't resist poking a little fun at his dad.

"Frankly I was a little surprised he didn't have his high school diploma," Evan deadpanned. "We'd never let him join up with the firm had we known."

Hal said he remains a little overwhelmed by the experience.

"While I never liked the idea that I didn't have a diploma, it wasn't something I talked about all the time," Winer said. "But David remembered; he's a good kid."

So with the diploma in hand, what could be next for Hal as he patches the holes in his past, a letterman's jacket?

"I'm probably too old to make any of the teams," he said with a smile. "But I might give it some thought."