The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

He missed graduation during WWII. Now 101, he’ll walk with Class of ’23.

Fredric Taylor joined the military to fight in World War II before his 1943 graduation at Iowa's Cornell College. (Linda Taylor)
4 min

When he started college in the fall of 1939, Fredric Taylor was excited for his future. He had begun studying music education at his hometown school, Iowa’s Cornell College, with dreams of becoming a music instructor.

Then, in December 1941, Japan attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, prompting the United States to enter World War II. Taylor, knowing he could be drafted into the military, instead joined the Army Air Corps the following year.

While Taylor had completed the requirements for his degree by his final semester, he wouldn’t be able to attend his graduation ceremony in May 1943. He had been sent to train in Missouri three months earlier.

But this month, Taylor, who is now 101, will finally walk across the stage. On May 14, Cornell College will honor Taylor at its graduation — 80 years after his scheduled ceremony.

“It was just something that felt incomplete — doing all the work for the degree and not walking across the stage and receiving that diploma,” Taylor told The Washington Post.

Taylor developed a passion for music when he started playing the sousaphone at his Springville, Iowa, middle school. In high school, he joined the instrumental and choir music groups and learned to play the euphonium and trombone and sing solos.

Taylor was studying at Cornell College, a small liberal arts school in Mount Vernon, Iowa, when Japan struck Pearl Harbor. Most men were required to register for the draft, and Taylor didn’t want to risk being drafted as an infantryman. A few months after the attack, he and friends set out to fly fighter planes instead.

In February 1943, Taylor traveled to Missouri’s Jefferson Barracks. Instead of celebrating his final months of college, Taylor said he lived in tents with little protection from rain and snow. Taylor’s father, Fred, picked up Taylor’s diploma at Cornell.

Taylor later trained in Michigan, Arkansas, Kansas, Texas and Colorado. While in Colorado Springs in September 1944, he married his fiancee from Cornell, Peggy Newberg. He became a lieutenant and spent the next year at a military base in Fano, Italy. He never saw combat. His military duties — and the war — ended in the fall of 1945.

After returning to Iowa, Taylor joined the Iowa Air National Guard and had a daughter, Linda, in 1948. Taylor earned a master’s degree in music education from Drake University in the mid-1950s. He said he missed that graduation ceremony, too, because he was working in sales for Armour and Company in South Dakota.

He later became a music instructor for elementary, middle and high schools — a profession he continued when he moved to La Mesa, Calif., in 1959. He led school bands, which he said often played at graduation ceremonies. At each one, he was reminded of the Cornell commencement ceremony he missed.

Taylor thought he would have to live with that regret. He retired in 1983 and traveled across the country during the summers.

His daughter Linda started to teach anthropology at the University of Miami in 1989. Seeing the smiling graduates and their families at the school’s graduation ceremonies made Linda hope that her dad could have that experience one day.

“It’s the rite of passage,” said Linda, 74.

Taylor was married to Peggy for more than 75 years before her death from kidney failure in March 2020, Linda said. Linda figured she needed to take action if her dad was ever going to participate in a graduation.

A few months ago, she shared her dad’s story with Cornell administrators and asked if he could walk across the stage.

“Every student deserves that moment in front of their families to celebrate the completion of college, even if it’s 80 years later,” Cornell College President Jonathan Brand said in a statement. “Plus, Fred is a powerful example for our Class of 2023 graduates. Through Fred, we witness how Cornellians lead fulfilling and meaningful lives serving others. This is a day we’ll never forget.”

Linda booked plane tickets and hotel reservations and sent them to her dad during the family’s weekly Zoom in late March. When Taylor realized he would walk across Cornell’s stage, he said he was shocked and “tickled.”

After students graduate at a ceremony in front of a campus building May 14, Brand plans to invite Taylor onto the stage. While Brand tells Taylor’s backstory, Taylor — wearing regalia — will walk across the platform and receive a diploma.

Then, Taylor will lead the graduates in turning their tassel from the right to the left side of their caps to mark the end of their — and his — college studies.

“It’s the best kind of closure,” Linda said.