Chester Nez, the last surviving Navajo Code Talker who died last week at the age of 93, had a special connection to Kansas University.
In 2012, the former Marine who helped the United States win decisive battles in World War II received his degree from KU 60 years after leaving the school.
"Chester was thrilled to get his 'sheepskin,' and a couple of times I saw him grin and tell people he was a Jayhawk," said Judith Avila, who co-authored Nez's memoir, "Code Talker."
She said 'Papa,' as Nez was called, always had a soft spot in his heart for Kansas. "He loved the rolling green hills of eastern Kansas. As a matter of fact, his last trip was to Pittsburg, Kansas, over Memorial Day weekend," she said.
During World War II, Nez was one of the original 29 Navajo "Code Talkers," who devised a military code based on the complex and rarely spoken Navajo language.
The code was used to relay battle instructions during the Allied assault in the Pacific. The lives of tens of thousands of American soldiers depended on the accuracy of the Code Talkers and inability of the Japanese to crack it. Ironically, Nez had been forbidden to speak his native language while in boarding school.
Nez was on the front lines in the Pacific and recounts the horrors of war in his memoir told to Avila. Before landing at Guadalcanal as he trudged past dead bodies, he struggled to justify going to war with his Navajo beliefs to try to find balance with each person in the world.
"I reminded myself that my Navajo people had always been warriors, protectors. In that there was honor. I would concentrate on being a warrior, on protecting my homeland. Within hours, whether in harmony or not, I knew I would join my fellow Marines in the fight," he said in his memoir.
After the war, Nez attended KU to study art, but his GI benefits ran out. Meanwhile, the Code Talkers' work during the war was kept classified until 1968.
Nez went to Albuquerque, N.M., where he worked at the Veterans' Administration hospital. As the story of the Code Talkers eventually came to light, numerous accolades rolled in. In 2001, Nez was personally presented with the Congressional Gold Medal by President George W. Bush.
Several years ago, Mary Brownback, first lady of Kansas, had read about Nez and the book "Code Talker, " and invited Nez to the state's annual book festival. When she heard about Nez having to leave KU before he finished his degree, she and Gov. Sam Brownback shared that story with KU Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little, "and she took it from there," Mary Brownback said.
KU officials determined that Nez's credit hours plus other courses he took entitled him to a degree.
Danny Anderson, KU's dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, said, "It was unfortunate that KU was not able to help Mr. Nez complete his degree in 1952 when he had to abandon his studies for lack of funding. We have a new approach to scholarships today to remove this kind of obstacle. When Mr. Nez came to our attention, I felt that we should not abandon him again."
During a special Veteran's Day ceremony at KU in 2012, Nez received his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree as several hundred people packed into the Lied Center pavilion and gave him a standing ovation.
"He was a man who didn't leave things undone, so getting his degree closed the 'school' chapter of his life in a very satisfying way," Avila said.