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Brothers, WWII vets, get belated diplomas

The Depression interrupted school. Then they served.

GARFIELD, N.J. - Two brothers who served in World War II received something this week that both said they will cherish as much as, if not more than, the medals they won: a high school diploma.

In a ceremony that took both men by surprise, the Garfield Board of Education awarded John and Frank Petriello honorary diplomas as their family and the audience gave them a standing ovation. Later they donned purple caps and gowns and posed for photographs.

"I'm probably the first graduate to have his picture taken holding his great-grandchild," said Frank Petriello, clutching his great-grandson, Noah Graham. "I'm 90 and he's 2."

John and Frank Petriello were born in Sassano, Italy, and immigrated to the United States when they were 6 and 8, respectively. Both were enrolled in the Garfield school system, and each got as far as his sophomore year in high school before the Depression intervened. Then came World War II, and any thought of returning to school evaporated.

Both men enlisted in the Navy and became medical corpsmen. Frank Petriello joined first, in 1941, after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He served on the aircraft carrier Bunker Hill in the Pacific until it was severely damaged by two kamikaze suicide pilots on May 11, 1945. John Petriello enlisted in 1942, serving in North Africa and the invasion of southern France.

The brothers returned to Garfield and raised families. Frank Petriello now lives in Elmwood Park and his brother, who turns 88 next month, lives in Clifton.

The idea to arrange for the brothers to receive diplomas started from a conversation between John Petriello and his son Mike six months ago. They were talking about other relatives who were getting ready to graduate.

John Petriello mentioned with regret that he had never gotten his high school diploma. That's when his son got the idea to contact school officials.

"When you're dad's 87, there's not a whole lot you can get him," Mike Petriello explained.

School officials agreed to present both brothers with honorary diplomas. But because the family wanted to keep it a surprise, it took some doing to get both of them to attend Tuesday night's school board meeting.

Each brother was told the other was getting a diploma, but not to talk about it because it was a surprise. And it was.

Frank Petriello said that while he wasn't able to finish high school, he and his brother placed a strong value on education. All of their children attended college.

John Petriello drew laughs when, upon accepting his diploma, he told his family: "I know you're going to want to take me around to different campuses, but I've settled on Princeton."