Last day of school

Students including Donald Hrovat, front row, third from right, and Robert Thomas, front row, second from right, celebrate the last day of school on the steps of Philomethian School in 1961. After leaving Chagrin Falls High School during his junior year to serve in the Navy in Vietnam, Mr. Hrovat was recognized as a Chagrin Falls graduate at the June 3 Board of Education meeting.

When the Chagrin Falls High School class of 1969 was enjoying the experiences that come with senior year, classmate Donald Hrovat was running security on gunboats on the Mekong River as a Navy Seabee in Vietnam.

Mr. Hrovat earned his GED after returning from Vietnam in September 1969, but was never recognized as a Chagrin High graduate until last week – 50 years later – when the Chagrin Falls Board of Education approved a special resolution.

Superintendent Robert Hunt noted at the June 3 meeting that the Ohio Revised Code allows for school districts to approve service members who left high school to serve in World War II, Korea and Vietnam as graduates. Because Mr. Hrovat and his wife Patty now live in Citrus Springs, Florida, his best friend Mike Wendl (Chagrin class of 1966) and Glenn Barriball (Chagrin class of 1969) accepted the diploma on his behalf.

“Having a dad who’s a Vietnam vet, I can certainly appreciate the sacrifice of those who went over and fought for our country, so I think this is a tremendous opportunity to pay back in a small way,” Mr. Hunt said.

The work to get Mr. Hrovat recognized as a graduate was undertaken by Chagrin classmate Robert Thomas, who recalled practicing with Mr. Hrovat on Mr. Jay’s gymnastics team at Philomethian School, playing together on the undefeated 1965 freshman football team and the time Mr. Hrovat cut the tip of his finger off with a radial saw in sophomore year shop class. Mr. Hrovat said his memories growing up in Chagrin reflect the close-knit Chagrin Falls community.

“We had so many friends and it was a great place, a super, super great place. We knew everybody because it was a smaller place,” he said. “It was a great place to live. We lived in South Russell, but I mean it was awesome.”

Mr. Barriball, who served as Mr. Hrovat’s best man at his wedding in 1977, remembered being classmates with Mr. Hrovat and then spending time together when Mr. Hrovat returned from Vietnam hunting and traveling the country for motocross races.

“He was into motorcycle races and doing a lot of motocross scrambles and things,” he said. “Every winter for about five years, we’d take a month and take a trip out west to the west coast.”

Mr. Thomas said he and Mr. Hrovat had kept in touch and visited over the years, both eventually moving to Florida, and he realized that while in high school he was unaware of Mr. Hrovat’s service to the country.

“I had no thoughts or memories of him serving in Vietnam while we were seniors. It was out of sight, out of mind, and that went on for many years to come,” Mr. Thomas said. “Then when I became aware of where he was and what he was doing when we were roaming the halls of Chagrin Falls High School, it just was always in the back of my mind that I just felt bad that I wasn’t aware.”

Mr. Hrovat enlisted in the Navy in April 1968 before the end of his junior year to get trade school financed after his discharge as a way to help support his mother Rose Slee, who lived in Bellwood Acres in South Russell.

“When I went in, I went to Great Lakes Boot Camp and then I joined the Seabees and then we went to training. I went to Camp Pendleton boot camp, also a Marine boot camp, and then we went to Vietnam and I got on security,” Mr. Hrovat said. “I was a builder, steel worker, but I went on security and did perimeters and we were up and down the Mekong Delta. It was an experience.”

As the class of 1969’s 50th reunion approached, Mr. Thomas was curious if Mr. Hrovat received his diploma from Chagrin. When he found out he did not, Mr. Thomas got to work.

“My mind went right to, well darn it, we’ve got to get a diploma for him,” Mr. Thomas said.

After calling the school board and learning the process for getting veterans recognized as graduates, he reached out to the Cuyahoga County Veterans Service Commission in January. Mr. Hrovat provided the needed documents, Mr. Thomas turned everything in and Chagrin Schools notified everything was set to award a diploma by April, Mr. Thomas said.

“I’m thrilled that it has happened, and I think that they’re genuinely happy,” Mr. Thomas said. “It’s not the biggest thing in anybody’s life especially since they’ve got four grandkids, two beautiful grown children, but we have communicated quite a bit since then and they are very appreciative.

“I like it and I think it’s exciting for a school board to be able to give back like that. It’s a good story, and it’s the least we could do for a guy that was not having a senior year in high school fun like we were.”

Working out the logistics of who would receive the diploma pushed the approval back to June, and Mr. Barriball said he first heard Mr. Hrovat was being honored a few weeks before the board meeting.

“First thing I heard about it was when Bob called me and said you’re accepting this diploma on his behalf. Bobby always sneaks up on you like that,” Mr. Barriball said. “I really thought it was a very good thing to do for Chagrin.”

Mr. Hrovat said he never expected to be recognized as a Chagrin graduate and was thankful for Mr. Thomas’s work.

“It’s outstanding,” he said. “With my records and all that, I don’t know how he did it. When he told me, I was in shock. It’s been a long time, but it’s good to have good friends.”

Mr. Thomas said the class of 1969 recognized and wrote letters and cards to Mr. Hrovat at their May 25 reunion. While he couldn’t attend the reunion or the board meeting, Mr. Hrovat said he and Mrs. Hrovat plan to visit Chagrin Falls this summer.

“It’s just going to be good to look back and look around. I know it’s changed,” he said.

Tim Tedeschi covers the Solon and West Geauga Board of Education, as well as statewide education issues, sports and features. He is a lifelong diehard Cleveland Indians fan and a graduate of Indiana Wesleyan University.

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