Bob Bourassa was supposed to graduate with the Class of 1954 from Washington High School - and he did go through the ceremony - but didn't have enough credits to graduate after missing several weeks at the end of his senior year because of a severe burn injury.
He was given a folder for his diploma at the time of the ceremony but his principal put Bourassa's unsigned diploma in his desk, telling him he'd receive it once he made up the three credits he needed.
Fifty-three years later, Bourassa proudly walked across the stage at the Brainerd School District Learning Center Friday, fulfilling his lifelong dream to become a high school graduate.
"It's really neat," said his wife, Beryl. "It's something he's wanted to do for a long time."
Bourassa was one of 45 graduates who participated in the Learning Center's graduation ceremony. For many personal reasons they, too, did not receive their high school diplomas in the traditional high school setting but successfully completed their General Educational Development - GED - this year.
Brainerd Dispatch/Nels Norquist
In April of 1954, Bourassa was 18 and he and his sister were left in charge of their three younger siblings while their parents went out of town. He said the fire in the furnace went out in the middle of the night so he went downstairs to build a new fire, using a small sprinkling can filled with gasoline so it would start faster. The flames flared up, severely burning his right hand and right side of his body. He spent two weeks in the hospital and two weeks at home. He was able to return to school the second week of May but he had difficulty writing with his injured hand.
Two of his teachers created multiple choice questions for his final exams so he could easily circle the correct answers with his left hand but the other three teachers each gave him an incomplete because he couldn't do the schoolwork, he said. He needed credits in English, literature and architectural drafting.
He was going to return to school in the fall but was given an opportunity to become a foreman at the construction company he was working for.
"Back then $400 a month in 1954 was a lot of money," said Bourassa.
He enlisted in the U.S. Air Force on Jan. 17, 1955, in order to be eligible for the GI Bill of Rights and served four years in the Air Force. When he returned to the Brainerd lakes area he got a job working at the Potlatch Paper Mill, formerly Northwest Paper, retiring after 38-1/2 years in 1997. He told his family he wanted to return to school and get his diploma after he retired from the mill but it didn't seem like the right time. His parents got sick and seven years ago his father, Walter, died. Bourassa was busy tending to his mother Lorraine's home as well as his own home in Baxter. He then got sick and under-went a few surgeries, include a left hip replacement. After he started getting better he decided it was time to go talk to his step-son, Todd Lyscio, who is the Brainerd Community Education director, about getting his diploma. He started back at school at the Learning Center in January.
"It has always been on my mind all these years," Bourassa said of receiving his diploma. "I never forgot it, you know."
Bourassa said the schoolwork seemed easier the second time around, primarily because of his life experiences over these past five decades.
Lyscio searched his stepfather's school records and wasn't able to find the unsigned diploma his principal kept from him. But he was able to find an authentic WHS Class of 1954 diploma, which he had printed with Bourassa's name. This diploma is signed by current school board members Kent Montgomery and Ruth Gmeinder, as well as Superintendent Jerry Walseth and Brainerd High School Principal Erich Heise.
Together, Bourassa and his wife have eight children, 21 grandchildren and a great-grandchild on the way. Several of their children attended Bourassa's graduation ceremony. They also celebrated his achievement with a graduation party at their Baxter home.
"It felt good," Bourassa said of receiving his diploma 53 years later. "I'm at peace. I completed it. I wish I was younger so I could go to college."
"We were privileged to be there for him when he wanted to do this," Marlee Larson, Learning Center principal, said of Bourassa. "We were happy to help him. He made the secretaries laugh and was a joy to have in the building."
Bourassa advised others in a similar situation to never give up on their goals. It's never too late, he said.
"Don't go to bed at night or die without fulfilling your dream," he said. "I told them (AEC teachers) if I die and you come to my viewing and see that smirk on the right side of my face, it's there because I got this."
JODIE TWEED may be reached at email@example.com or 855-5858.
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