As the crowd in the room around him sang the Kansas University alma mater Monday, 91-year-old Chester Nez stared at the diploma in his hands. A crimson and blue KU tassel dangled from the side of his red baseball cap, which read “Navajo Code Talkers.”
In 2001, Nez was personally presented a Congressional Gold Medal by President George W. Bush. But as he held that diploma open and examined it, his eyes said that this moment was every bit as important, his son Michael said afterward.
“This is probably the final thing that he wanted to finish in his life,” Michael said.
On Monday, 60 years after he left KU still short of his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, Nez finally graduated. A crowd of several hundred packed into the Lied Center pavilion and spilled into the hallway outside to watch Nez receive the diploma and a wave of other gifts during a special Veterans Day ceremony.
But the accomplishment that led to this moment happened even longer ago, during World War II.
From 1942 to 1945, without a break, Nez served as a Marine in the all-Navajo 382nd Platoon. He was one of 29 original Navajo “Code Talkers,” recruited to devise a military code based on their complex, rarely spoken native Navajo language.
The Code Talkers played a role in every Marine assault in the Pacific Theater during those years. And as Nez mentioned multiple times during an interview before Monday’s event, Japanese forces were stumped by the code until the end.
“They tried everything in their power to break the code,” Nez said, “but they never did.”
Judith Avila, a writer who co-authored Nez’s memoir, released last year, said it’s the only spoken code used in a modern war never to be broken.
Nez’s native language, which he’d been forbidden to speak in childhood while in boarding school, helped him influence the outcome of a world war and earn countless honors.
Danny Anderson, the dean of KU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, said before he handed Nez his long-awaited degree that the retired Marine corporal demonstrated the importance of diverse cultural backgrounds for society’s collective good.
“The awarding of Mr. Nez’s degree reflects our aspirations for our graduates to change the world,” Anderson said.
Sara Rosen, KU’s senior vice provost for academic affairs, spoke to affirm that Nez’s “extraordinary circumstances” merited his degree. Rosen, also a professor of linguistics, said that the platoon’s Navajo-based code — designed to stump even native speakers of the language — has been included in textbooks and courses far and wide.
“The Navajo Code Talkers, as they were called, developed a military code that has for decades now been a legend that linguists have read about, and have been in awe of,” Rosen said.
Nez’s receipt of his degree was greeted with thunderous applause. But during his time as a KU student, before he was forced to withdraw when his GI Bill funding expired in 1952, no one knew what he’d done in the Pacific. The Code Talkers’ exploits were kept classified until 1968.
His son Michael recalls that on the day the information was released, Chester gathered his family in the living room of their Albuquerque, N.M., home to finally talk about being a Code Talker.
Only since then, as Michael has watched his father receive all sorts of honors and even join MGM Studios on a press junket for the 2002 film “Windtalkers,” has he realized how significant Chester’s achievements were. His father is now the lone surviving member of the 29 original Code Talkers.
“He’s received a lot of awards, a lot of plaques and a lot of things from different organizations,” Michael said. “But I think this is up there on the top.”
Chester said before the event Monday that his time at KU was dear to him and a point of pride, and to receive a degree would bring him joy.
“That’s one thing I never expected to receive,” Nez said.
In addition to his degree, Chester received numerous other gifts from various dignitaries Monday. Lawrence Mayor Bob Schumm presented a key to the city. Stephen Prue, executive assistant to the president of Haskell Indian Nations University, gave him a cedar box from two fellow Marine veterans on the staff at Haskell. Kevin Corbett, president of the KU Alumni Association, gave Nez a class ring, leading his family members in the audience to gasp.
He received decorated blankets from the KU Native Faculty and Staff Council and the Department of Visual Art. One came with an embroidered inscription: “Chester Nez C’12,” denoting Nez as a 2012 graduate of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
Since he left KU for Albuquerque in 1952, Nez said he had worked various jobs before landing one with a Veterans Affairs hospital that allowed him to incorporate his beloved craft of painting.
“He was a wonderful artist,” Michael said.
Chester has grown very hard of hearing, he lost both legs to diabetes and experienced the deaths of several family members. But 10 relatives came with him to Lawrence on Monday, including a high-achieving great-grandson who aims to attend Stanford University, Michael said.
Avila interviewed Nez for a period of three years before releasing “Code Talker: The First and Only Memoir By One of the Original Navajo Code Talkers of WWII.” She said he’s been troubled by nightmares in which he imagines he’s surrounded by Japanese soldiers.
But his recognition as a Code Talker has helped turn the latter period of his life into a celebration, she said. And a degree from his beloved KU will only add to that.
“Oftentimes he asked people at book signings, ‘Have you ever been to Lawrence, Kansas? That’s where I went to school,’” Avila said. “Now he can say, ‘That’s where I got my degree.’”