Shame and guilt have followed Santa Maria resident Henry Davis for more than 60 years.
It followed him across the United States, from his small hometown in West Virginia to military bases in New York, Maine and California. He thought about it while stationed overseas in Germany, England and France. It even lingered during his 1966 deployment in Vietnam.
"I had big aspirations for myself," said Davis, 83, "but this is something that rarely comes up."
Davis received a Bronze Star during his service. After retiring from active duty, he completed an associate and bachelor's degree, three master's degrees and a doctorate. He later channeled his experiences into a 30-year career counseling and providing academic guidance to Hancock College students and inmates at the Federal Correctional Institution in Lompoc.
Despite all his accomplishments and no matter how many students or faculty members called him a mentor, supporter or friend, Davis still struggled to talk about the high school diploma he never completed. To him, it stung to know he was a dropout.
"Here I am telling everyone to get a higher education, but this was the one link in my whole chain I just didn't get straightened out," he said.
But on Thursday afternoon, Davis crossed the stage at the Santa Barbara County Education Office as part of a special graduation ceremony honoring local veterans whose service stopped them from receiving a diploma. After 67 years of daydreams, what ifs and false starts, Davis was finally a high school graduate.
"It's a big day, something I never dreamed would ever be possible," he said in an interview before the event. "Sometimes I still can't — it brings me to tears even thinking about it."
Davis never believed he would join the Air Force.
He was convinced his mother would forbid it since his two older brothers were already serving. And at 6 foot 2 inches tall, weighing only 125 pounds, Davis said he would barely make the minimum cutoff weight.
"I was what you call a skinny man," he joked, "a beanpole — that's what they called me."
Born and raised in South Charleston, West Virgina, Davis remembered his hometown as a small, country town without many jobs.
"It was a place where you could get yourself in some trouble quickly," he said, noting that his friends were "involved in every kind of unbelievable thing ... that would end you up in jail."
During a political science class at Garnet High School, Davis said his teacher, William "Coach" Moore, asked to speak with him after class. He credits that conversation with sparing him from the county jail.
"He said I had to leave," Davis remembered. "He said I would end up in trouble [because] I didn't have a clue what [my friends] were involved in. He had permission from my mother and told me that I was going to join the military."
On July 12, 1952, at the age of 16, Davis recited a 73-word oath of enlistment and began what would later become the start of 23 years of service with the U.S. Air Force. Due to the demands of his basic training and varying assignments, he placed his remaining high school classes on an extended hiatus.
In 1969, after being transferred to Vandenberg Air Force Base, Davis enrolled in his first class at Hancock College — History 107: US History — as a high school dropout. Three years later, in 1972, he was awarded the first degree he had ever received: an associate in liberal studies.
"It was like graduating from Harvard, that's how important it was for me," Davis said. "It was a real emotional event for me."
Davis continued his studies while enlisted, and later completed a bachelor's degree from the University of Laverne. He accepted a job working at Hancock College as a counselor when he retired from service in 1975 with the rank of chief master sergeant. Davis would complete master's degrees in public administration, counseling and psychology, and marriage and family counseling, as well as a doctorate in leadership and human behavior while working at Hancock.
After retiring from Hancock in 2004, Davis returned to the college on a part-time basis to advise the school's Student Veterans of America club. He played a large role in creating the campus' Veterans Success Center, where he can now be found counseling student veterans returning to civilian life.
"A lot of the veterans know what they need to do, they just need an extra bit of motivation — someone to listen to their dreams and focus it into a reality through the classes they can take," he said. "We're here to listen to them and help guide them."
But the missing high school diploma always stuck out to him.
"In talking and working with students who are making their transition from high school to college, I'd always think, 'God, I wish I had done that,'" Davis said. He considered attending adult school, night school or other programs while working at Hancock, "but being married, having kids and working full-time made it seem impossible."
Davis said he plans to hang the diploma on his wall for everyone to see.
"I know my mother in heaven is going to be very happy because she sure wanted me to get a high school diploma," Davis said. "That was my encouragement as a young guy and even now."