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101-year-old Cornell alum to graduate 80 years after missing ceremony to serve
Caught up in WWII, Fred Taylor missed 1943 ceremony
In the rolling hills of Southern California, east of San Diego, Fred Taylor spends his mornings with a cup of coffee and a Sudoku puzzle. He enjoys cleaning the yard and refilling his bird feeders — and every spring looks forward to the return of the orioles from Mexico.
Born and raised in Springville in 1921, the now 101-year-old former music teacher eventually found his way south to the coastal climate of the American West. But this spring, like the orioles he favors, Fred is migrating north — back home to Iowa.
Although he didn’t know of his Midwest return until a little over a month ago — when his daughter, Linda Taylor, handed him a letter during a Zoom call with family and friends. It was from his alma mater, Cornell College in Mount Vernon, where he earned a music degree 80 years ago.
“I just had him cold read it, and that’s how I sprung it on him,” she said. “It didn’t give him a chance to say no.”
'Uncle Sam wants you’
In the early 1940s, when Fred was pursuing a postsecondary degree at Cornell, the world was at war and the United States was drafting servicemen.
“You know all the posters about ‘Uncle Sam wants you,’” Linda said. “So he and several of his friends, right after Pearl Harbor, joined the Army Air Corps Reserves because they’d rather fly than join the infantry.”
Fred’s unit was activated in February 1943, meaning the 21-year-old Cornell senior had to leave school early and miss commencement — although he’d completed his music degree requirements.
Linda said he wanted to serve, having two brothers enlisted at the time.
“It was not a hard thing,” she said of his decision to go. “He always wanted to fly.”
Fred, according to his daughter, doesn’t talk about his time at war. Although, she said, he did get to fly “some of the greatest airplanes every made.”
“He flew the P51 Mustang,” she said. “If Tom Cruise owns a P51 Mustang, it’s got to be a pretty hot airplane.”
Before Fred left, at the start of his senior year at Cornell, he met a girl named Peggy Newberg.
“I was assigned to the same table in Bowman Hall as Peggy,” he said, referencing the history of assigned seating for meals.
Peggy traveled to Colorado Springs to marry Fred during his advanced flight training there.
And after he returned from war in 1945, Fred joined the Iowa Air National Guard before getting his master’s degree in music education from Drake University in 1953. He missed that commencement, too — he had landed work in the Black Hills.
But none of those missed experiences fazed Fred, who started his long music-teaching career in Iowa before the couple relocated to California, where he retired and remains today — still living in the same house he and Peggy moved into in 1959.
'Rite of passage’
When Fred missed his Cornell graduation in 1943, his dad drove the 10 miles from Springville to Mount Vernon to pick up his diploma. But that never sat well with his daughter — an associate professor at the University of Miami in Florida.
“I had a bee in my bonnet about it,” Linda said.
As an academic, she’s seen how meaningful and plain fun graduation can be.
“We do a heck of a graduation,” she said. “It's a flat-out Miami party.”
She started wondering if — even at 100-plus years old — it wasn’t too late for her dad to have that tassel-turning experience.
“Dad's generation just gave up a lot to make sure that we were free and happy,” Linda said. “I wanted to find out if it was possible for him to have that experience. It's a rite of passage.”
So she emailed the Cornell Alumni Association and the college’s president, Jonathan Brand, pitching the idea of her veteran father finally crossing the Cornell commencement stage this spring.
“They were enthusiastic about it because there's not many Cornellians left of his generation,” Linda said. “So I made arrangements.”
When she handed her father his flight itinerary and communication from Cornell inviting him to graduation during that Zoom call several weeks ago, Fred said he was stunned.
“Linda mentioned this idea a long time ago, but it was a big surprise to me that she had gone ahead and made the arrangements to do it,” he said. “Of course, I’m surprised and excited about it.”
In addition to commencement, Fred said he’s looking forward to seeing Midwest friends and family and “eating as many pork tenderloin sandwiches and Maid-Rites” as they can find.
Being in good health, Cornell administrators plan to have Fred cross the stage first — before the rest of the 190 graduates at the Sunday morning ceremony.
“They're going to call dad up,” Linda said. “And in the time it takes him to walk this 48-foot-long ramp, they’re going to explain his story and present him with his diploma.”
In addition to his robe and cap with a purple tassel, Fred will wear a white master’s hood — because he has a master’s degree.
“We are so excited to meet him soon,” Cornell communications director Dee Ann Rexroat said.
If you go: Commencement is planned from 10 a.m. to noon Sunday in the Richard and Normal Small Athletic and Wellness Center arena, 600 First St., Mount Vernon.
No tickets are required and seating is available for all wanting to attend. Seating begins at 8:30 a.m. and guests should be in place by 9:45 a.m. The ceremony begins at 10 a.m.
Vanessa Miller covers higher education for The Gazette.
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