Samuel Blitstein of Buffalo Grove was among the first World War II veterans in Illinois to receive his high school diploma, nearly 60 years after he left school to fight in the Pacific.
It was 10 years ago, during a special ceremony at Stevenson High School, that Biltstein and two other veterans received their diplomas.
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They benefited from a bill, sponsored by state Rep. Sidney Mathias, waiving requirements for veterans of World War II, the Korean conflict and Vietnam, who had left school to serve in the armed forces, to receive their diplomas.
Blitstein passed away on Tuesday, at the age of 86.
"He was thrilled to get his diploma," says his wife, Bernice, "but he was even more honored that there were so many servicemen who would benefit from this bill."
The waiver now is listed among the many education and training benefits for Illinois veterans, but staff members in Mathias' Arlington Heights office still remember when it was passed.
"(Rep. Mathias) was thrilled to bring that piece of legislation forward," said Terry Moons, legislative aid for Mathias. "After it passed, people all over the state received their diplomas.
"But Mr. Blitstein was instrumental in getting the legislation passed," she added. "Rep. Mathias had him in mind when he introduced it."
Blitstein was just 17 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. The attack shaped his life, family members say, causing him to leave Marshall High School in Chicago to join the Navy.
He served as a gunner's mate and was on a destroyer escort ship in the South Pacific when his classmates were receiving their diplomas. When he returned home, he never went back to high school, but went to work to help support his family.
Blitstein eventually spent 35 years as a purchasing agent with Republic Plumbing and Heating before retiring. However, he always wished he had earned his high school degree, his wife says.
"The ceremony at Stevenson was so big, they held it in the gym," Bernice Blitstein said. "The band was there and they held a dinner for us."
Former Stevenson High School Superintendent Richard DuFour commended the three veterans for their sacrifices and he described missing their diplomas as just one example of their civilian lives taken away in the line of duty.
He hoped that the ceremony and the three veterans' fervent desires to receive their diplomas, so many years after the fact, would make an impact on the high school students who met them that night and help them realize the value of their education.
Besides his wife, Blitstein is survived by his children, Michele (Harvey) Felman, and Jerrold (Gayle) and Alan (Marcia) Blitstein, as well as eight grandchildren and two great grandchildren.
Services have been held.