While his friends and classmates were wearing caps and gowns and receiving high school diplomas on graduation day 1977 at Gainesville High School, David Dukes wasn’t there.
He hadn’t earned the credits needed to graduate.
“I was just a knucklehead to tell you the truth,” Dukes said in an telephone interview with The Times this week. “I was not interested in school at the time, kind of drifted off, had a lack of focus and maturity and just didn’t get it done.
“I certainly felt it graduation night,” he added. “I saw all that was happening and it made me realize what a mistake I was making as a young boy.”
Dukes’ life changed after that. He entered the U.S. Marine Corps, where he had several deployments, earned medals, served on embassy duty in several countries and even was on President Ronald Reagan’s detail during a 1984 trip to China.
He also earned his General Education Diploma and a degree from Southern Illinois University. He retired from the Marines as a Master Sergeant in 2001 and works as a Naval Science and JROTC instructor at New Loudon High School in Loudon, Tenn.
And 40 years later, Dukes finally received his diploma from Gainesville High during commencement ceremonies Friday night at City Park Stadium.
The school awarded Dukes a Veteran’s Diploma.
GHS Principal Tom Smith said Dukes was originally nominated for a honorary diploma, but then officials realized that the school district offers a Veteran’s Diploma and went through the process for Dukes. Smith said Dukes’ diploma actually has the year 1977 on it.
“The Class of ’77 will be there in force,” Smith said. “It’s really pretty cool that this is playing out. It really is.”
Smith credited Fletcher Law, a minister who has been a close friend to Dukes since they were children, as one of the leaders in the effort to make the GHS diploma a reality for Dukes.
“I remember him saying about a year ago his only regret in life was not graduating from Gainesville High,” Law said. “We’re kind of thrilled this is the 40th year for the Class of ’77, so 40 years later, he will have completed that.
“He’s just been a great inspiration for his classmates,” Law added. “We think he’s done great things in service to his country. We’re very proud of him.”
Dukes called the diploma “a great honor.”
“It means a lot to me and I understand a lot of my friends have done this for me,” he said. “It means a lot to me concerning my friends as well.”
Dukes said not graduating with his class in 1977 greatly impacted his life.
“I think that really was a demarcation line for me growing up and understanding that finishing was very important to me,” he said. “Even going into the military was kind of proving to me that I could do it and I wanted to continue my education and, of course, finish college. That event, me not graduating, really kind of bounced me the other way, so to speak.”
While he has told his students in Tennessee that he was “the world’s worst student in high school,” he has not told them that he didn’t graduate, but plans to do that soon.
“I haven’t told them the complete story,” he said. “To be honest, I’ve never said, ‘I haven’t graduated.’ It just never came up. I do talk often about my poor performance in high school.”
He did tell his principal in Tennessee, who he said was supportive. He told his sons, Fletcher, 24, and Andy, 18, this week. Andy graduated from high school earlier this month.
“They never knew and it has been kind of thing that always bothered me,” he said of the conversation with his sons.”They were proud of me.”
Dukes said he is grateful for his time in the military.
“I grew up in the Marine Corps,” he said. “I don’t know what I would have been doing or how that would have worked out. The Marine Corps is a culture and it’s my culture still. It’s who I am.”
Dukes and Law were both defensive backs on the Gainesville High football team. He said receiving the Veteran’s Diploma at City Park, where he played football, will be special.
“It’s a closure thing,” he said. “It certainly will close it out, not just for me, but for my friends and family. City Park is a special place for all of us.”
Looking back 40 years, he said, if he could talk to high school senior David Dukes, the conversation would probably start with “a swift kick in the rear end and asking ‘What’s wrong with you?’”
“My high school career spiraled down from the beginning for whatever reason,” he said. “It’s inexplicable to me. I was just real immature. The great thing about my classmates is they knew what it was like for me, they continued to be my friends and we’ve been in touch all these years. It’s been great.”