LARAMIE, Wyo. — When University of Wyoming Cowgirl basketball coach Joe Legerski spoke about responsibility, loyalty and cowboy ethics at Rock River's High School, it was a message to help guide the school's seven graduates on stage through their transition to young adulthood and beyond.
For Rock River High School graduate and World War II veteran Burton Noe, the advice was more post-script than prologue. Noe, 85, hadn't heard Legerski's speech until that night, but his life would seem to show otherwise, and Legerski said so.
"You want to talk about loyalty? You're here at Rock River walking, and I applaud you sir, I really do," he said.
Noe's journey to graduation began in the fall of 1942, but it wasn't until May 24 that he walked across the stage to receive his honorary diploma and congratulations from Principal Ron Leathers. And just as graduation means a new beginning for so many, so it did for Noe.
"It just made me feel like a different life had happened to me, honestly," Noe, who now lives in Evansville, said. "I always wanted to have a high school diploma. I got a GED you know, but I still wanted . Always all my life I've just wanted a high school diploma. I put in three and a half years or so working for one and walked away from it to go to war."
It's Monday, April 23 and Noe has just finished a tour with Leathers of Rock River School. He's seen every classroom from arithmetic to shop, spoken with dozens of teachers and met his fellow graduating classmates.
Over lunch, he and soon-to-be Rock River graduates A.J. Anderle, Richard Clark, Ashley Cope, Colton Irene, Codie Leslie and Cassidy Newkirk talked about preparations for the upcoming day.
Does he have a cap and gown? Leathers assured them he does.
Did he bring photographs for the senior slide show? He did, and administrative assistant Tammie Sims has scanned them into the computer.
These and many other questions come up among jokes, smiles and laughter. Noe said he's the happiest person ever, but everyone at the table could probably give him competition for that title.
As the seniors get up to go back to class, Leathers thanks them for meeting with Noe.
"I just wanted to make sure you met your new classmate," he said. "Make sure he gets his homework in this afternoon."
Of course Leathers is joking, but, chances are, if he'd asked for a math assignment, Noe would have gladly turned one in.
"I think this is a great school," Noe said. "I wish I was going to it."
"There's still a month and a half left - feel free to come register for classes," Anderle joked.
Leathers reminds Anderle that he's still responsible for his own homework.
"Now, (Noe's) not taking over your classes for you," he said.
A lot has changed since Noe left Rock River in the fall of 1945 to join the United States Navy. The current Rock River School, built in the early 1980s, is on the east side of Highway 287. The old school, which used to be west of the highway, is gone. So, too, is the wooden shed where Noe put his horse Silver the day he decided to enlist.
Noe got back on track to graduate after visiting with Wyoming Veteran's Commission Casper manager Dean Mahaffey.
"He was going to call Cheyenne about some of my compensation or disability, whatever you want to call it, and there was a piece of paper laying there on his desk, and I asked him, 'What is this about, graduating class?' He said, 'Well would you like to graduate high school, would you like to have a diploma?' I said I would love to have my high school diploma from Rock River," Noe said.
Mahaffey — who spoke at the graduation ceremony with others from the Wyoming Veterans' Commission (WVC) — called the WVC in Cheyenne, who then called Albany County School District No. 1 Superintendent Brian Recht, who then called Leathers in Rock River.
"We're very supportive of the military, and I just think it's the right thing to do," Leathers said of Noe's graduation. "We want to let him have that wish."
Ever since he found out in a January letter that he would be graduating from Rock River this year, Noe has been persistently floored by the outpouring of kindness and support from everyone who helped him fulfill this wish.
"It just made me so proud, very proud that I was going to be able to get to Rock River High School — that I loved — and get my diploma, get my graduation," he said. "Everybody was just kind enough to take care of it without me having to say another word, that's all I know."
Noe is especially appreciative of Rock River's 2012 graduating class. Moments before walking onto the stage with them, he took them aside to tell them something he'd said so many times before, but could never say enough.
"I just think this is the most wonderful thing to happen to me," he said. "I never met better people in my life and — I'm serious — I really admire you."
The graduates said much of what they, too, had said before, but could never enough.
"Thank you for choosing to graduate from Rock River," Anderle said. "That really means a lot."
"It means a lot to me, too," Noe replied.