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Taylor Wilson, Taylor Wilson, KSL-TV
William O'Reilly's honorary diploma

SALT LAKE CITY — In 1944, the United States was at war and William O'Reilly was a junior at Judge Memorial Catholic High School. He was about to turn 18 and rather than wait for the draft, he and his best friend enlisted in the U.S. Navy.

O'Reilly was stationed in the Pacific theater and ended up on the island of Okinawa, the staging ground for a full-scale attack on mainland Japan.

That attack never came. World War II ended and after being honorably discharged, O'Reilly returned to Salt Lake City in June 1946 — one month after what would have marked his high school graduation.

On Monday, 65 years later, O'Reilly, now 84, received a standing ovation as he accepted an honorary Judge Memorial diploma during the school's 2010-2011 academics and activities awards ceremony.

"It kind of gets me by surprise," William O'Reilly said.

While the day has been a long time coming, the actual honor crept up on him. O'Reilly's son, Brian O'Reilly, had written to Judge Memorial Principal Rick Bartman, telling his father's story and asking what could be done. Bartman wrote back, inviting the elder O'Reilly to participate in the awards ceremony.

"I was sitting at the lunch table and the mail came and my wife started to smile," O'Reilly said. "She said, 'they're going to give you a diploma.' "

Brian O'Reilly said he intended for years to speak with school administrators about his father. His only daughter started at Judge in 2005 and while visiting, he found himself looking at old class photographs.

"There were class pictures dating back to the '20s," Brian O'Reilly said.

Sure enough, he came across the Class of 1946. Looking at the photograph, he recognized names from his father's stories and it struck him that his father was not among them.

"He was a part of these people's lives," Brian O'Reilly said. "They had that taken away from him. There was something wrong with that."

Like it so often does, time slipped by. Then, the younger O'Reilly got some motivation.

"Last fall he had a heart attack," he said, of his dad. "It was mild, but I thought, 'maybe now is the time.'"

Brian O'Reilly said that when he wrote to Bartman, he expected that he and his father would drive to the school, pick up the document and then grab some lunch. He was surprised at Bartman's official invitation.

"We really wanted to honor him," Bartman said. "He's part of the family."

Bartman said he had never before given an honorary high school diploma. He and his staff looked into what would be required and "invented" some of the jargon used in the ceremony.

"It's a very special opportunity," Bartman said. "It was a privilege to be able to let people know his story and hand him that diploma."

William O'Reilly was not the night's only award recipient. As an honorary member of the class of 2011, he finds himself in a group that contains two National Merit finalists, six Academic All-State athletes and countless other distinguished students.

For Bartman, the class of 2011 has a special personal connection. He joined the school as principal four years ago, marking this year's graduating seniors as the first group of high school students that he has seen from the beginning to end.

"We both came in together four years ago," Bartman said. "They're taking a piece of my heart with them. They work hard, they play hard. They're ethical, they're moral. They're volunteers and they make me very proud."

The graduation ceremony for Judge's Class of 2011 will be held Sunday.

Email: benwood@desnews.com