Veteran gets High School diploma 50 years after attending Fort Gibson

Apr. 20—FORT GIBSON — Jimmy Watkins received his Fort Gibson High School diploma Friday, more than 50 years after the rest of his class.

Watkins, who lives in Granbury, Texas, left the school in 1972 to join the U.S. Army National Guard.

In a ceremony before a school presentation of Tiger Theatre's Bicentennial production "Vivia," Watkins was given his high school diploma. He also received a copy of 1973 senior class panel, which has pictures of each 1973 class member.

"Watkins now is an official member of the graduating class of 1973," School Superintendent Scott Farmer said after shaking the veteran's hand.

The audience featured 1973 FGHS classmates, along with current high school students.

"I think I'm shocked," Watkins said after the honors. "I was going to come up today and, to my understanding, meet the principal in his office, receive the diploma and shake his hand. My class was here and this (play) was here. It's like a three-ring circus. I'm just stunned."

Watkins recalled how close he was to his 1973 classmates.

"I went to Fort Gibson from 1960 to 1972, it was the only public school I went to," Watkins said. "I knew all those kids for years."

He said he left school in 1972 because he was having some personal problems.

"I went and got my GED, joined the military and stayed in the Army for 21 years," he said.

Over 21 years, he served as a quality insurance inspector, working up to the rank of E-7 Sergeant First Class. After retiring from the military, he worked 18 years in accounts payable.

Watkins recalled going to a FGHS class reunion a few years ago and was told he didn't belong because he did not graduate with the class. He said a classmate got with the superintendent to arrange for a diploma.

That classmate, Fort Gibson schools receiving clerk Pat Orman, said she told Farmer how Watkins never got to graduate with the class because he joined the service.

"And he goes, 'Pat, we can get him his diploma,'" Orman said. "So Mr. Farmer went to work on his side, and I went to work on my side and we surprised him with classmates coming in."

At the ceremony, Farmer said the "Vivia" musical was an appropriate time to honor Watkins. The musical focuses on local lore about Vivia Thomas, who is said to have disguised as a Fort Gibson soldier to pursue her love. The woman's grave is at Fort Gibson National Cemetery.

"As you watch 'Vivia' today, you're going to see a lot of history displayed and you are going to see a testimony to why the fort was built, which is a display of unity and peace, and a show of stability and strength," Farmer said. "In this country's history, people have had to answer the call to keep peace and show strength around the world and here locally. Sometimes that's done with the sacrifice of life. Sometimes it's done with the sacrifice of continuing your education."

Farmer said the United States was involved in the Vietnam War in early 1973.

He said Watkins "answered the call to represent our country on the world stage."

The superintendent said the 1973 class panel, which hangs with other panels in the school, happened to have a vacant space. Farmer said the panel is being redone to add Watkins' photo.

Watkins said his diploma and copy of the class panel will hang in his living room.

"I'll catch my breath tomorrow, maybe," he said. "They went above and beyond."