92-year-old Deaf man receives honorary diploma from PSD after 75 years

Last week during the graduation ceremony at the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf (PSD), the Head of School Peter Bailey surprised a 92-year-old former PSD student, Harrison Shirk, with an honorary diploma.

He was a part of the class of 1944, but left school in 1943 to help farms and factories that did not have enough men due to World War II.

PETER BAILEY: This is something that does not happen very often. It’s been 199 years, and it didn’t happen during my time, but this is what’s going to happen.

I feel that it’s my utmost obligation for PSD.

75 years ago, he left PSD and missed his own graduation because his parents called for him to help them during wartime. So, it’s 75 years later now, I could not let him leave without no… special…gift.

So, before we get started, I have this picture of you all from back then.

Do we have that photo ready for the projector?

I didn’t include this in the program book because I didn’t want this information to leak out and get your wife involved. She didn’t know! They had no idea! Thank you all for keeping this a secret. Now before I get started, please stay here and I’d like to ask his two daughters to accept the honor of placing the robe onto Harrison.

It’s my pleasure to share that I, along with the Board Chief, with our formal authority, present you…

This diploma!

Harrison is receiving a honorary diploma from PSD after 75 years of waiting!

His family can join us up here, they can join us here.

He’s has formally graduated.

HARRISON SHIRK: Thank you all!

Thank you very much.

Alex: Very nice honor. Here are a few remarks from Bailey.

PETER BAILEY: I still have the goosebumps from when Harrison received his diploma. He was stunned, really shocked. In the audience, there were so many emotions and reactions. People in tears and it was a very touching scene. After the ceremony, after Harrison got his diploma, he sat down and realized that, at 92 years old, where he’d done it all but now he has a diploma. He feels that he’s done all he needs to accomplish in his life. Now, he’s been teasing our guest speaker, Dr. Buckley from NTID, the president, who was the graduation speaker, Harrison teased that it was time to apply for the Fall college courses since he has a high school diploma now.

They had their own table with his graduation cake. Each graduating seniors get their own cake and he got one for himself to share with his family. It was a really nice celebration, a really big day for him. He was so happy, shocked, surprised and I feel good about that because sometimes we get so consumed with daily life that we forget that many people miss out on these opportunities.

Alex: Now, here are a few remarks from Harrison Shirk.


[Video clip of Harrison Shirk (who is accompanied by his wife of 65 years, Peggy]

HARRISON SHIRK: I left in 1943. I left because during the war, I had to work. World War II. I wanted to go back to school, but what happened was I had bought a car. My car had tires that were smooth. I worked for different farmers in the area. You know how these farmers’ wives had a need for men to work on their farms. I was deaf and many of these farmers and their boys were called into the military at the time. They needed men to run these farms. For about 3-4 years, I worked on these farms. After school, during summertime, I would work on these farms. Then my car’s tires slipped out and needed replacing. So, I wanted new tires.

“No, you can’t get new tires!”

“Because all the tires go to the Army for all their jeeps and their trucks. They’re not going to just give them to people.”

“But if you work for the government, in defense, gun production, tanks or planes then they’ll give you new tires.”

I was blown away and decided I had to stop the farming work. I got a job in the Armstrong Cork Co. I got the job and I told them I needed tires. They asked me if I’ll bring work supplies in the car to work. I said yes and they said they would give me the new tires. They gave me some paperwork to sign. I went into this store with the paperwork and at first, they said they couldn’t use it. I told them I work for the government now, in gun productions, then they gave me these new tires. It felt really good. I liked working there. I was the moving man. These two boys and I work together with 300 women. All of their husbands and sons had gone to war. All of them. They needed men to move around the heavy stuff. When I asked about what I would do then, they said I was the “move man”. I move things. I would be responsible for stocking all the heavy stuff and distributing them to 300 different women. I did the work then in the fall, I wanted to go back to school. The company I worked for said, “We must win the war!”

They told me that many of these boys and their children are in the military. They’ve sacrificed for their country. I felt like I was stuck, and I had to stay instead of going back to school. I agreed to stay until the war was over. That’s why I never graduated.

75 years feels like 10 years ago to me. Time goes by really fast. It’s so short.

Alex: Thank you Bailey and Shirk for your time and for taking us back to what life was like in 1944.

Bailey said he first learned about this when he sat at the same table as Shirk and had a conversation several months ago. He never forgot about it and recently made secret arrangements with his two daughters for this surprise and honor.