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Veteran gets high school diploma - almost 6 decades later (video)

By JR Ortega
June 7, 2014 at 1:07 a.m.
Updated June 9, 2014 at 1:09 a.m.


History of Austwell

Austwell is on Farm-to-Market Road 774 near Hynes Bay in northeastern Refugio County.

It was founded by Preston R. Austin in 1911; the community's name combines the first syllable of Austin's name and the last syllable of that of his partner, Jesse C. McDowell.

Austin installed a water system with large cypress mains in every street and a fire plug on almost every corner. The community served as the terminus of the Austwell branch of the St. Louis, Brownsville and Mexico Railway.

In 1912, Austwell acquired its own post office and erected a small wharf, but the bay was too shallow for anything except lighter navigation.

Austwell was incorporated by an election Sept. 10, 1914. About that time, a town newspaper, the Austwell Dispatch, was established.

On Dec. 7, 1914, local Masons chartered the Lieuen M. Rogers lodge.

The town was badly damaged by a storm in 1919 and almost destroyed by another Aug. 31, 1942.

The population dwindled to 300 in 1944. By 2000, the population was 192.

SOURCE: Texas State Historical Association

TIVOLI - What should have been one of Ricardo Cortez's shortest walks in life has been his longest.

The way - riddled with bumps, puddles and cavernous potholes - is so gaping, one wonders how the 77-year-old came so far.

With every step, the way felt uncompromisingly infinite.

Friday night, however, the end was finally in sight.

Only 10 steps separated Cortez from the dream he left behind more than half a century ago - high school graduation.

"I've always had the drive to better myself," he said.

In late 1953, when Cortez left Austwell to join the Air Force, life in Austwell was much different. He left his sophomore year and would have graduated in 1956.

"They had about five cantinas, a mercantile and three grocery stores," Cortez said from his Victoria home.

The Austwell back then is nothing compared to the Austwell of now.

Then, Austwell was bustling - a coastal city thriving in the success of a strong Gulf industry.

The town had a growing population, and Cortez remembers having many classmates, though the number escapes him these days.

As promising as the town was at the time, a 17-year-old Cortez saw hope serving his country.

"I was a little scared," Cortez said, squinting to call up the feelings of 1953. "It was my first time ever being away from my parents."

The Korean War had ended before he dropped out of school, and as an eager teenager, Cortez felt disappointed.

"I wanted to see action," Cortez said.

Action wasn't too far off.

In January 1954, Cortez enlisted.

The basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio was tough. Cortez can still feel how cold the winters were.

"It got a lot colder then than it does now, I think," he said.

Cortez was scrawny - under 136 pounds - and carrying 75 pounds of essentials in a backpack that weighed half his weight was a burden.

He passed - barely - with the help of six bananas that put him just above the weight limit.

"I should have eaten the peeling also," he said, laughing. His voice is gravelly. "I was a little, skinny runt back then."

Cortez received his GED and went on to serve in Vietnam.

Cortez came back and attended College of the Mainland in Texas City and graduated with his bachelor's degree in criminal justice.

In those days, he said, you had to push for success.

"Nowadays, a person needs education. You need a college degree," he said. "There is a lot of help out there for youngsters."

Cortez worked as a supervisor of correctional officers for the University of Texas Medical Branch's John Sealy Hospital in Galveston.

Then, in 1985, life changed. Driving home one night from work, he wrecked his motorcycle into a retired police officer's vehicle that got in his way.

He punctured his lungs and broke several bones.

"Luckily, I always wore a helmet," he said. "Maybe that's one of the reasons I'm here."

His wife, Ofelia, remembers the wreck as if it happened yesterday.

"It's a miracle he survived," she said, teary-eyed.

As a result of the wreck, Cortez developed asthma, which to this day ails him. The asthma was so bad that Ofelia rushed him to the hospital three times in the year after his wreck. Each time, he completely stopped breathing.

He was forced into an early retirement at 50.

Early retirement has been life's toughest card dealt, he said.

"I'm not satisfied; I have to be doing something," he said.

His brother, Robert Cortez, Victoria County clerk, said his sibling's ambition to receive his diploma even after all these years says something about the human condition.

"I think what this signifies is that it's never too late to accomplish your goals or a dream," his brother said.

Growing up, their mother wanted all her children to graduate from high school. She was never able to, so this was her wish, he said.

"That was the only thing that she asked. I think it's great that my brother is going through that for her," he said.

On Friday, he was finally wearing his red cap and gown, ready for his Redfish diploma.

At 77, he admits there is nothing he can do with his diploma, but he'll have it, and he hopes others will be inspired to earn their diplomas as well.

"I always missed that little piece of paper beside my college degree," he said. "I wanted my Redfish diploma."

Cortez walked across the stage, his family clapping, cheering as he accepted his diploma - better late than never, he said.

"I'm almost speechless; it's something that I just needed to do, and I finally came through," he said.

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