RCOE Highlights

November 9, 2015

Family and Country First: World War II Veteran Set To Receive Elusive High School Diploma

Benjamin Cusumano

After the military, Ben Cusumano found a way to become a successful barber, police officer, and maître d’, without having to provide his (nonexistent) high school diploma.

As a teenager, Benjamin Cusumano dutifully chose to serve his country during the final stages of World War II, but ended up dodging the consequences of abandoning his education for the rest of his life.

At 2 p.m. on Tuesday, November 10, Cusumano and 10 additional Riverside County veterans of foreign wars will be honored with high school diplomas at the Ninth Annual Riverside County Operation Recognition event at the Moreno Valley Conference and Recreation Center (14075 Frederick Street, Moreno Valley). Operation Recognition is a joint effort of the Riverside County Superintendent of Schools, Kenneth M. Young, the Riverside County Board of Education, and the Riverside County Department of Veterans Services. At the program, diplomas will be presented to residents of Riverside County, like Cusumano, who missed completing high school due to military service in World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, or due to internment in World War II Japanese-American relocation camps. Operation Recognition high school diplomas are authorized to be granted to eligible veterans by the California Education Code, Section 51440 and Section 51430.

Now 88 years old and living in Rancho Mirage in California’s Coachella Valley, Cusumano’s earliest memories include learning English while playing ball in the streets and picking up just enough to get by in the classroom and in life.

Cusumano recalls life as a student at Sawyer Elementary School and Gage Park High School in the suburbs on Chicago’s south side during the Depression of the 1930s. As the only son in the family, he remembers the pressure of expectations to support the family financially superseding the necessity of education.“I enjoyed my youth, but I never knew anything besides the hard way. My buddies were all the same—we were thinking about our families and not about school,” Cusumano said. “My mother had no job, and dad was between jobs. So getting a job to support the family was as much an expectation as it was a necessity, and I wanted to help.”

Cusumano remembers dropping out at the age of 14 by “sneaking out of class one day and never going back.”

As a child, Cusumano played with model airplanes and admits that “flying was in my blood.” He enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force—the military aviation service of the U.S. and the direct predecessor of what is now the United States Air Force. When he started as a cook, Cusumano was earning $50 per month.

“I sent all of it to my parents because all of my needs were taken care of by the military. My dad needed it more than I did,” Cusumano said.

In order to realize his childhood dream of flying a plane, Cusumano was required to attend flight school.

“I didn’t think that I would get to be a flight controller because I didn’t have any education—I thought they would catch me,” Cusumano said. “But, it didn’t matter if I finished high school as long as I passed their test.”

Being named a flight controller on the B-29 planes after completing flight school established a pattern of achieving career goals without any formal education that would become part of Cusumano’s professional storyline for decades to come.

Ruben PetersMeet Another Operation Recognition Class of 2015 Graduate: From Omaha Beach to All 50 States: World War II Veteran Set to Receive Honorary High School Diploma at Age of 92

Before Cusumano and his B-29 flight crew could get into the air war in Europe, the war ended.

“We were ready to go and never got into the war,” Cusumano said.

Discharged after a full year of service, Cusumano soon became enamored with southern California and convinced his entire family to relocate there while he searched for employment.

“Back then, nobody ever asked me for a diploma at all. Otherwise, I would have never gotten a job,” Cusumano admitted.

Despite not finishing high school, Cusumano encountered many educational opportunities in his lifetime—including attending clerk’s school, barber school, earning his real estate license, and graduating from the police academy. But, at each step along the way, the question of a high school diploma would arise and Cusumano was forced to employ his creativity to work around the lack of a diploma.

When he applied to barber college, Cusumano was asked if he had a high school diploma and told them he “didn’t have it with me at the time,” and then they never asked for it again. He soon became licensed to cut hair and was hired at one of the finer establishments in Los Angeles where he had the opportunity to trim the famous locks of John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, Mel Tormé, and others.

He settled in the east Los Angeles community of Montebello and took over the management of multiple barber shops. He began studying for his real estate license after a cultural phenomenon cut into his profits.

“In the early 1960’s, the Beatles were popular and bad for business,” Cusumano said. “Men used to come into the shop weekly or monthly to keep their hair short, but then they started growing it long like the Beatles and stopped coming in so often.”

He decided to switch careers, entered and completed the police academy program, and applied to become a member of the City of Montebello’s Police Department.

“When applying for the position, the police chief told me that I had to have a diploma, but I told them I didn’t have it with me and I got started on the job without it,” Cusumano said. “I had been on the job for a while and the chief said I was doing a good job and should get my GED degree instead. Pretty soon, I was too busy working and never even got to that.”

As an officer, he found himself back in schools giving safety talks to students and reminding them to stay in school. He retired from police force after 25 years of service.

James Lenon Jr.Meet Another Operation Recognition Class of 2015 Graduate: Patriotism Before Pomp and Circumstance: 89-Year Old U.S. Army Veteran Set To Receive High School Diploma

Even with positions as a private investigator after retiring from the police force, he deployed the “I can’t find it” line when asked for the whereabouts of his high school diploma. He employed similar tactics for jobs he held as maître d’ at a variety of restaurants.

“I used to tell people, that, yes, I had some school,” Cusumano said. “Today, I can tell you one thing—you can’t get away with that.”

Cusumano has been surrounded by educated people throughout his life—including cousin and longtime president of Chapman University, Dr. James Doti, who regularly tried to persuade him to get his diploma. Both of Cusumano’s sons attended college and were unfazed by their father’s educational shortcomings.

“They never asked and I never told them, but I learned through them,” Cusumano shared when asked how he taught his kids the importance of staying in school. “If I had my diploma, I could have probably been someone like I dreamed about as a kid.”

“The thing I’m most proud of in my life is what I was able to do without an education,” Cusumano said. “I knew someday that I’d get stuck without that diploma, but thought I could always tell people I never finished it because I was a kid growing up in the Depression. I never really did find a way to get that diploma.”

Ahead of Veterans Day 2015, the search for a diploma has finally found him—ending the lifelong hunt for that stubbornly missing document should another request happen to surface.

Operation Recognition Class of 2015

David Beaudoin
Palm Springs
U.S. Navy – World War II

Robert Michael Coe
U.S. Army – Vietnam War

Benjamin John Cusumano
Rancho Mirage
U.S. Army – World War II

Harvey Robert Harris
U.S. Army – Vietnam War

James Esco Lenon Jr.
U.S. Army – World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War

Joe Peña Jr.
Canyon Lake
U.S. Army – World War II

Juan Peña Jr.
U.S. Marine Corps – Vietnam War

Ruben Martinez Peters
U.S. Army – World War II

Richard Rosenthal
Palm Springs
U.S. Army – Vietnam War

Jacinto Reyes Salinas
U.S. Army – Vietnam

Ralph Hamilton Wolfe Jr.
U.S. Navy – World War II