World War II veteran left high school to answer his country’s call of duty
In a ceremony filled with pomp, accolades, broad smiles and a few tears, Domenic Giarrusso was awarded the high school diploma he sacrificed nearly 75 years ago for a cause far greater than himself.
Giarrusso, 92, was officially presented with his Central High School diploma by Supt. Dr. Susan Lusi and Principal Julia Carlson as Assistant Principal Jon Mendelsohn and school secretary Ann Marie Deady looked on during a festive ceremony held in the expansive library of Cranston High School West.
“All these years after Mr. Giarrusso answered his country’s call, a high school diploma still means so much more than a piece of paper,” said Dr. Lusi. “It represents a significant milestone in one’s life, a rite of passage that always remains a source of pride and achievement. For your degree was earned not only in the classroom, but in the experiences of your life.”
“My life cycle is complete as far as my education goes,” said a beaming Giarrusso after the ceremony. “I’m on Cloud Nine.”
A member of Central High School’s January Class of 1941, Giarrusso left high school to enlist in the U.S. Army Air Corps, now the Air Force, as a flight test engineer. World War II had erupted overseas and the United States was gradually building its own forces. He was younger than the minimum required age, but obtained his parents’ permission to enlist. After returning home, he earned his GED certificate, but never had the opportunity to walk across the stage to receive his diploma.
At the February 12 ceremony, Giarrusso stood in a Central High School cap and gown as family, community officials and members of both school districts took pictures and paid tribute to his sacrifice so many years ago.
The event came about partly by accident and through the unique collaboration of two high school principals, Carlson and Thomas Barbieri of Cranston West.
At a recent visit to the Veterans Hospital, Giarrusso met John Casale, Jr. after noticing his World War II veterans’ cap and the two men realized they had much to talk about. A few weeks later, through the efforts of Casale’s daughter-in-law, Karen, both men were invited to Cranston West to speak to students about their war experiences. It was then that Principal Barbieri learned Giarrusso had not received his high school diploma and placed a call to Carlson to arrange the ceremony. Within a matter of days, with the assistance of staff at both high schools, the diploma presentation was arranged. It was held at Cranston West to be closer to the homes of both men.
Although Casale had received his honorary diploma from Cranston High School years earlier, he was also recognized and the two men sat together at the front of the room, clasping hands as they relished this very special day.
As he welcomed guests, Barbieri said of Giarrusso and Casale, “We are here to remember the sacrifice they have made. They sacrificed their freedom for our freedom, to serve a cause larger than themselves. We thank you for answering the call of duty.”
Assistant Adjutant General David Medeiros of the Rhode Island National Guard and Kim Lipoli, associate director of the Rhode Island Division of Veterans Affairs, paid tribute to both men. Medeiros presented them with a Commander’s Coin for their exemplary service, the first of many gifts, plaques and citations they would receive that morning as speaker after speaker expressed their gratitude to these members of America’s Greatest Generation.
“This generation of Americans put their dreams on hold to protect the dreams of their country,” said Lipoli. “You showed your dedication to our country by sacrificing your high school education.”
Rhode Island Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello of Cranston said they were a “special breed” for enlisting so young. Noting the students in the audience, Mattiello said, “You are a fine example of a life we can all be proud of. Thank you for setting a great example.”
Cranston Mayor Alan Fung noted that not only did veterans make many sacrifices, but their families did as well. Senator Frank Lombardi of Cranston presented both men with citations and thanked them for putting their lives on hold to serve their country.
In closing the ceremony, Carlson said to Giarrusso, “Congratulations. You will always be a high school graduate.” She later said that presenting Giarrusso with his diploma was something she will always remember. It was apparent that his high school years meant a great deal to him, as he showed Carlson his certificates for perfect attendance and report cards he had saved.
Giarrusso served in Italy and Africa from 1942-1945 and repaired airplanes when they returned from fighting. After returning home to Providence, he married his wife, Dorothy, in 1948, opened an auto repair shop and then worked at the Quonset Air Station, Madison Industries and for the State of Rhode Island, using the skills he learned in the military. He and his wife moved to Cranston, where Giarrusso has lived for the last 35 years. His daughter Elaine lives in Massachusetts and his son Edward lives nearby. His grandson, Steven, a graduate of Cranston West, was at the ceremony.
Giarrusso said he missed not having his diploma many times when he applied for jobs. He would have to explain that he had his GED because his schooling was interrupted by military service.
“Life takes many twists and turns and this was always in the back of my mind. I’ve always been a strong advocate for education,” he said. As a Boy Scout troop leader, he would tell his scouts to stay in school and do what’s right.
Giarrusso repairs clocks as a hobby and said he would have to take down a few to make room for his diploma and the many citations he received. As a fitting footnote to a special day, later that evening the Central High School boys varsity basketball team played Cranston West. Giarrusso was invited back to lead the Pledge of Allegiance before the game.