Never too old to graduate

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At 97 years old, Charles Leuzzi obtained his high school diploma.

Charles Leuzzi surrounded by family and friends as he recieved his diploma.

South Philly native Charles Leuzzi always wanted to graduate high school, despite having to leave right before his junior year to help support his family financially. Yet, proving it’s never too late to work on advancing one’s education, the now 97-year-old received his honorary high school diploma from South Philadelphia High School on Sunday, July 16.

Born on Jan. 14, 1920, to Italian immigrants, Leuzzi’s parents had hoped that by relocating to America their son would have increased opportunity, and would be able to learn to both read and write. Fulfilling their wishes, he grew up on the 700 block of Tree Street and attended Francis Scott Key Elementary School and eventually began attending South Philadelphia High School.

“In those days, SPHS had a girl’s side, Synder Avenue, and a boy’s side, Jackson Street. Most of my friends all went to the same school,” Leuzzi remembers. “Since my family was struggling and I didn’t own a suit, SPHS gave me a voucher to purchase my first suit, which I had to wear to school.”

Yet, amid the onset of the Great Depression, Leuzzi was forced to remove himself from his studies and begin working to help pull his family out of poverty. In doing so, he obtained a job at the Wricley Nut Company, a small, family-owned business located at 480 Pattison Ave.

“It felt bad [having to leave school] but at the same time I had to help my family,” Leuzzi said. “My dad didn’t earn enough money for the family and my mom was crippled. My sisters and I all helped around the house — cooking, cleaning, etc., — and I thought it was important to leave school and help my dad, who was a very good father.”

“My father frequently stops by the factory to reminisce with the present owner, the grandson of his first employer, who loves hearing stories about his family,” Beverly Pintarelli, his second of three daughters, said.

Years later in 1942, Leuzzi was drafted into the U.S. Army 8th Division, 13th Infantry, Company D, during World War II as a sergeant. Upon finishing boot camp, he was shipped from Fort Dix on a transport boat headed for Ireland, and from there, he landed on Omaha Beach just 28 days after the D-Day invasion.

Fighting on the front lines across France, Leuzzi was a member of the troops who followed Gen. Patton’s tanks as they headed toward Germany, ultimately finding himself in the Battle of Huertgen Forest. As the Allies suffered great losses, Leuzzi was wounded on April 1, 1945, and was honorably discharged in November of that year. However, before his discharge, Leuzzi was awarded two Purple Hearts and four Bronze Star medals for his heroism and dedication to serving his country.

“It felt good to be home with my family. I was happy to see all of my family and friends again, and the war was over for everyone [around that time] not only me,” Leuzzi said. “Going back to my ‘normal life’ was great because it was a happy one.”

In resuming life as a civilian, Leuzzi married Narue Salice four years later on June 4, 1949, at B.V.M. Church, and once again began working at the Wricley Nut Company. Not long after marrying Salice, Leuzzi found himself with three young daughters and an increased need for money. Therefore, he found an alternative job as a shipper at After Six Formal Wear, where he remained for 40 years until retirement in 1994.

“My father is proudly part of what is so aptly referred to as ‘the Greatest Generation’ of men and women who unselfishly sacrificed their own lives to make this world a safer and better place,“ Pintarelli said. “He is truly a remarkable man.”

Once retired, he took to the activities he loves, including golfing nine holes at Franklin Delano Roosevelt Park whenever the weather permits. Yet, despite leading a happy and full life, Leuzzi’s only regret was having not fulfilled his parents’ wish that he someday obtain his high school diploma.

In helping her father achieve his goals, Pintarelli sent a letter to South Philly High after passing by the school a few weeks ago, sharing all of her father’s achievements and asking he receive his diploma. In response, the school asked for documentation of his military service and awards, and found his records from when he attended the school. Thus, the school agreed to award him his diploma, and Leuzzi even received a letter of congratulations from Sen. Bob Casey Jr.

In the letter, Casey noted that Leuzzi’s accomplishment illustrates his commitment to excellence in all of his endeavors, as well as his hard work, commitment and leadership. In addition, Casey commended him for his lifelong service, Purple Hearts, Bronze Stars and care of his children and grandchildren.

“I feel very happy and content [to have earned my high school diploma] because my father always pushed us to have an education even though he didn’t have one,” Leuzzi said. “He would be very proud that I received my high school diploma. I am truly honored and appreciate all the well wishes from everyone.”