WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Winthrop “Bill” Williams Jr.’s walk across the commencement stage this weekend at Purdue University will be his second.

The first time, in 1953, Williams had his whole life ahead of him. He had served in the U.S. Army during World War II, packing parachutes and planning to be deployed before the war ended. He waited for his younger brother to get out of high school so they could go to Purdue together.

The plan was to graduate together, as well, and they both walked across the stage. But Williams was informed afterward that he didn’t complete the requirements for his degree in mechanical engineering.

“When I went up for my diploma, they gave me a blank,” Williams, now 81, said. “I was thinking I would graduate, but I was short some credit hours.”

Williams already had a job as manager of an Indianapolis hardware store lined up after graduation. It was the same place he worked every weekend as an undergraduate, scrimping and saving every penny to get himself through college.

The prospect of going back for another class when he already had a job lined up didn’t make much sense then.

But now, Williams wants his degree. And when he walks across the stage at 8 tonight, 55 years after his last class, that’s just what he’ll get.

“I had no idea I graduated before he did,” said Williams’ daughter, Laurie Yearly of Lafayette. She earned a mass communications degree from Purdue in 1984.

Yearly and everyone else who knew Williams always assumed he had received his degree. Williams worked at a company that designed and built change machines after he left the hardware store, and everyone knew he had attended Purdue.

When Williams asked his daughter to look into what he needed to do to finish his degree, she thought he was joking. She had no idea her father had never received his degree.

So, Yearly asked. And the answer that came from Purdue was that Williams didn’t need to do anything. He had basically fulfilled the requirements 55 years ago.

“He actually had enough credits to complete the degree, but not exactly the right credits,” said Jim Jones, associate professor and associate head of the Mechanical Engineering Department at Purdue. “He had everything he needed except one required course, but he had one that was very, very similar.”

Williams had taken Introduction to American Government, but he needed a class called Elements of Democracy. Jones decided that was close enough, a conclusion he said could have been made decades ago and is sometimes made today. So Jones got approval for Williams to receive his degree.

“If American government isn’t about democracy, I don’t know what is,” Jones said.

Williams chokes up thinking about getting his degree. He was ready to take classes again to complete it.

“It makes me feel very humble. I’ll enjoy every minute of it,” said Williams, who has already cleared a special place on a wall in his house for the framed diploma. “I won’t be able to use it for anything but to look at it. I will be looking at it every day. I just wish my wife was around to see it.”

Williams said his wife died nearly three years ago.

The diploma Williams receives will be one from 1953, and Yearly said the signatures will be copies of those used to sign diplomas that year.

Yearly said her father gets choked up just about every day thinking about his degree. She believes he was always embarrassed over not graduating.

“The worst thing is, he walked across the stage in a cap and gown ... and the folder was empty,” Yearly said. “That’s the saddest thing I’ve ever heard.

“We’re just so incredibly proud of him.”

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