On a Seattle-bound train in 1999, Gil Harris happily disclosed fond memories of serving in the Navy from 1957 to 1963 to a writer he met on the trip despite never finding out her name. Two weeks later, he received a letter from that same woman translating his own recollections into writing.
Shortly after, that one-page letter later inspired him to write a 10-page detailed account of his Navy days serving on two destroyer ships and making it through two hurricanes at sea.
Harris, a Northport resident and member of the Greenlawn American Legion Post 1244, volunteered to speak to eighth graders at Oldfield Middle School last Feb. 21, providing them copies of his story.
His willingness to share his service experience with young people led to him -- at the age of 73 -- finally receiving his high school diploma during Harborfields High School’s 2013 graduation ceremony on June 22.
“I was a little nervous. I wasn’t 17 anymore,” said Harris of the graduation ceremony. “But the kids cheered and hollered for me. I had tears in my eyes, touched by what they did for me.”
He had dropped out of Kings Park High School, one credit shy of graduation, at age 17, after his father died of a heart attack on Father’s Day in 1955 at age 51. To support his mother and five siblings, he picked up a job as a cook at a diner, earning 35 cents an hour.
Post Commander Bob Santo said Harborfields High School Principal Rory Manning found out about Harris’ classroom visit. Manning got in touch with Harris though the Legion and told him he was eligible for a “Life Experience” diploma, awarded through a state program to military veterans based on their knowledge and experiences serving in the military.
“It was a great and proud moment for the Legion to see him walk the stage that day,” said Santo, 68, of Huntington. “All our guys are really proud of what he accomplished.”
His wife of 33 years, Maddalena Harris, said he’s been a hard worker his whole life. After his service in the Navy, her husband worked 35 years as a supervisor at the Kings Park Psychiatric Center and volunteered at the Kings Park Fire Department, as well as with the Legion.
“He needed to finish school, but he put his family’s needs above his own,” she said. “That’s just how he is. For as long as I’ve known him, he’s put everyone first.”
In reminiscing about his life, he said he wouldn’t change a thing. Walking across the stage that day and receiving his diploma after all these years, he said, felt was a gift.
“Through all the hardships I’ve had in my life, I learned to be a better person,” he said. “I didn’t learn about life from paper, but instead from meeting people and experiencing.”
The last part of the letter he received in 1999 summed up his pride for how his life turned out even after losing his father so suddenly, he said.
“Gone ashore for good, we will brag about our Navy days, when the seas belonged to us and a new port of call was ever over the horizon,” it read. “I will stand taller and say, ‘I was a sailor. I was part of the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Navy will always be a part of me.’”