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Korean War vet, barber receives diploma 63 years later

By KBell
Nov. 10, 2011 at 5:10 a.m.

Ruben Gutierrez gives his father, Demetrio, a trim at their family barbershop, the Victoria Barbershop. Father and son have worked together for 25 years. Demetrio Gutierrez, a Korean War veteran, who put off graduating from high school so that he could join the Army, received his high school diploma on his 80th birthday last December.

His daddy had begged him to stay, but Demetrio Gutierrez was all of 17 years old and had plans of his own.

It was 1948 when Gutierrez left behind La Ferria High School to enlist in the Army.

"Daddy, he was all upset, and he was right," Gutierrez, now 80, said. "But see, I was young. I didn't think that education was going to help you. I just thought about getting away, seeing parts of the world."

His worldly adventure took him to Japan, where he earned $90 a month. Gutierrez said he sent $60 of his income back home, adding a hefty supplement to his father's weekly paycheck of $6.

"Don't you know that Mama was so good, we always had plenty of food," he said, always speaking warmly of his parents who lived well into old age.

Two years later, Gutierrez was scheduled - and ready - to come back home.

But then the Korean War broke out, and the young combat engineer was among the first troops sent to war.

The night before he was to come home yet again, his camp came under sniper fire and Gutierrez was sent out on one last mission.

He stepped on a land mine.

Gutierrez remembers waking up on a helicopter, his head turned to the side, blood filling his throat. He was choking. A medic told him to simply take a deep breath, he remembers.

"I will never forget him. I thought I was going to die," Gutierrez said of the medic.

Gutierrez, a slight man with gray hair hidden by a baseball cap, had mostly skipped over the details in the first telling of his story, jumping straight from Korea to his barber shop in Victoria.

With some prying, he told about the year-and-a-half he spent in the hospital, with braces slowly straightening his leg. Gutierrez even caught pneumonia on a flight from San Francisco to San Antonio, a plight that nearly took his life again.

But when he was back on his feet in Texas, he married Mary - the schoolgirl he'd had a crush on, the girl whose hair he used to pull in fifth grade.

"When I came back, she was going with another man. Of course, I had another girlfriend over there, but when I went to talk to her, she quit that man and came with me," he said with a proud grin.

Mary would eventually give him a kid for every day of the week, Gutierrez joked.

Shortly after Gutierrez went to barber school, the newlywed couple moved to Victoria so Gutierrez could work in a friend's shop. The plan was to stay a few months, pay off some bills and return to the Rio Grande Valley.

"And we're still here. It's been about 58 years," Gutierrez said.

The father of seven eventually opened up his own shop in his garage, and clients came in droves. His daughter Angela remembered eating lunch with her father every day in the barber shop. Ruben, the couple's youngest, remembered watching his father create a successful business in part because of his personality.

"I saw how he would communicate with people," he said. "He just had friends everywhere. There was something attractive about that."

It was attractive enough to make Ruben, his son Martin and daughter Alma want to cut hair, too.

Now Martin and Ruben take to cutting their father's clients' hair, while Gutierrez makes cameos to sweep up every now and then.

For as much time as the kids spent with their father growing up, they said they didn't know about his war experiences until recent years. He's begun to open up, they said. The stories provided a whole new backdrop for the man they so admired even before they knew about his injuries and sacrifice in leaving school.

For one, he'd always emphasized education with his kids, even putting his son-in-laws through school.

So on his 80th birthday this past December, Gutierrez was content knowing he'd finally fulfilled his father's wish. At a surprise birthday party, more than 60 years after he left high school, Gutierrez was surprised with a diploma from La Ferria High School.

The pride permeated through generations of Gutierrezes - from Gutierrez's parents to his kids.

"For some reason, this was part of his path," Ruben said. "That's my best friend. When you see him, you see what my grandfather's like."

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