The Orland Park man’s formal education ended Jan. 7, 1943, when he turned 17 and enlisted in the Navy, never completing his junior year at Leo Catholic High School.
Now 89, Wilkins returned to Leo on Friday to receive his diploma and formally become an alumnus.
“I really do feel like I’m back, the spirit of it all,” he said after the presentation, which was part of Leo’s annual ceremony to honor military veterans.
Veterans of different wars and branches of the military, along with members of Wilkins’ family and dozens of Leo students, gathered in the courtyard in front of the school.
“I’m honored to have served our country,” Wilkins told them.
Afterward, he placed a wreath at the Leo War Memorial, which honors alumni who lost their lives while in the service of their country.
Wilkins, who turns 90 in January, has been involved for about 30 years with Veterans of Foreign Wars Bremen Post 2791 in Tinley Park, and his father, Harry, served in the Army during World War I, joining the fighting in Europe.
While Wilkins’ education was cut short, he constantly reads about subjects that interest him, including books about World War II, politics, business and nutrition, his daughter, Cathy Lipuma, said. She’s one of his four children.
“He is the biggest influence in our life and a wonderful example to all of us,” the Orland Park woman said. “It’s just wonderful to still have him.”
Wilkins’ wife of 63 years, Florence, said it was a moving ceremony and related the early years of their courtship.
“We met at a dance, then we started dating,” she said.
They wrote to each other while he was deployed with the Navy in the Pacific, “and when he was home on leave he got a ring” and proposed, she said.
The couple are members of St. Stephen Deacon & Martyr in Tinley Park, whose pastor, James Finno, is also a Leo alumni.
While Wilkins was forced to wait until he turned 17 to enlist, it wasn’t his first try at joining the armed forces.
Just 15 and in his sophomore year at Leo, Wilkins doctored his birth certificate — altering the year of his birth, 1926, to make it appear he was born a year earlier. It was two days after the attack on Pearl Harbor and the country’s sudden entry into a war, the scope of which would be broader than the Great War that Wilkins’ father had fought.
“That’s all we were talking about,” Wilkins said of the attack.
He played hooky from school and joined the rush of other young men at the federal courthouse to enlist in the Navy. Wilkins said he really wasn’t sure why he picked that branch, although a cousin was serving in the Navy at the time, and Wilkins had been part of the Boy Scouts of America’s Sea Scouts program.
“I passed the physical and everything,” he said, although one doctor, suspecting he was too young to serve, quizzed him about his age.
The young seaman’s plans were capsized, however, by a photographer for Chicago’s Herald American newspaper. A front-page photo — Wilkins brought a copy of the paper to Friday’s event — clearly shows him in the foreground with a headline “Chicagoans Rush to Join Navy.”
His family lived at 74th and Peoria, within walking distance of Leo, and “everybody on the block knew,” as well as some of his high school classmates and, most importantly, his family, about his courthouse visit. If a letter confirming his enlistment ever did come to the house, he didn’t see it.
When he did finally join the Navy, Wilkins trained as a radio operator and served on a landing ship, LST-278, which carried troops and tanks into battles on islands such as Saipan, Tinian and Peleliu. The ship was badly damaged as it was battered by hurricane-force winds in October 1944.
He was discharged in December 1946, then went into the reserves in 1950, assigned as a radio operator on board the submarine USS Catfish, before being discharged in February 1952. He spent 35 years working for Illinois Bell.
The story of how he got the diploma involves a wonderful collision of circumstances.
During Tinley Park High School’s graduation ceremony this past May, Wilkins, the Bremen VFW post’s official photographer, was taking pictures of the post’s color guard at the event. Also shooting the graduation was professional photographer Chuck Furlong.
Seeing Wilkins with a camera, Furlong started chatting with Wilkins and asked him whether this level of pomp and circumstance had been part of his own graduation, with Wilkins telling him he’d never completed high school and that it was one of his biggest regrets. It might have ended there, but sometime later, Furlong asked Wilkins where he had attended high school, learning he’d gone to Leo.
The photographer Furlong, as it happens, is a brother of Rich Furlong, president emeritus of Leo’s alumni association. Calls were made, and Dan McGrath, Leo’s president, determined that Wilkins would get his diploma.
Rich Furlong said the news was initially kept a secret from Wilkins and his family, but when the man was told of the diploma plans, “the first words out of his mouth were ‘I don’t deserve this.'”
At the ceremony, Furlong told the crowd “we’re going to right something,” noting the circumstances that resulted in Wilkins not finishing school, and that “72 years later, we’re here to give Jim a long-overdue diploma.”