Sent to war before graduation, 95-year-old finally wears cap and gown

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For four years, high school students work, study, and make the grade so they can walk across the stage at graduation. For one Hillsborough County man, it took a bit longer; 76 years to be exact. But this year, 95-year-old Joe Perricone finally wears his cap and gown. 

It's been a while since Perricone walked the halls of Hillsborough High School. A lot can change over the course of eight decades.

"I don't remember any of it," he said with a laugh.

Perricone graduated in 1943. In February of that year, he left to serve in the U.S. Army.

"My draft board said, 'You go and serve your country and be a big boy,'" Perricone recalled.

His diploma was mailed to his mother. While the rest of his class tossed their caps, he was at Camp Blanding. 

"I took my basic training with combat engineers," Perricone said. "All our training was mines, booby traps, all that kind of stuff."

Throughout World War II, Perricone served in the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, Germany, Denmark, and Sweden.

His family says it took 50 years for him to finally open up about the war. But mixed with the memories, his grandson, Judge Thomas Palermo noticed a recurring theme.

"For years, we heard this story about how he was inducted into service and didn't have the opportunity to walk across the stage," Palermo said.

So he got an idea. He asked the school district if there was room for one more at this year's commencement. Wednesday, 76 years later, Principal Gary Brady presented Perricone with his red, shiny cap and gown.

"On Saturday, you're an honorary member of the Class of 2019 of Hillsborough High School," Brady said. "And, I want to present you with your gown and your cap and your tassel."

"How about that?" Perricone remarked, grinning ear to ear.

The twinkle in his eye proved that some things are truly worth the wait. "I never thought I'd be wearing one of these," Perricone said.

"It means the world to see someone we love very much getting to live out a part of his dream," Palerm said.

Perricone was also given senior class shirts and a few gifts the class of 1943 may not have seen.

"This is what you put on the back of your cell phone so, I don't know, maybe you want to give this to your grandson, too," Brady said, handing Perricone a cell phone accessory.

You learn a whole lot about life in 95 years. So, from one senior to hundreds of others, Perricone has this advice: "They're not boys and girls anymore once they get that diploma. They're ladies and men," Perricone said. "Whatever you decide to do, do the best you can, plus 10%. That 10% will usually get you over what you're doing."

One more piece of advice: "Don't hesitate," Perricone said. "You've got something in mind? Do it. That's my advice to them."

Saturday at the Florida State Fairgrounds, Perricone will finally get take that walk across the stage, a walk 76 years in the making.