A young David Shuker dodged bullets and helped East Germans escape communism at the hottest spot of the Cold War. But all the while, Shuker still pined over what he was missing back home at Abraham Lincoln High School.
“When I left and went into the service, I was thinking ‘What have I done?” said Shuker, now 71. “I did not get to go to the senior prom. I didn’t get my letter jacket.”
“But the thing I missed the most of all was these kids I grew up with,” Shuker added. “I didn’t get to walk down the aisle with them to graduate.”
The white-haired Shuker gets to re-write some of his missing history June 1, when he strides across the commencement stage at the University of Denver-Ritchie Center, wearing a robe and mortarboard, and becomes a proud Abraham Lincoln Lancer graduate. He’ll even be escorted by Lincoln High’s Junior ROTC squad.
Shuker got his GED when he was in the Army in the early 1960s. But the actual paper diploma is a special token that Shuker wishes his mom could see.
“Above all else, she wanted me to graduate from high school,” Shuker said. “Oh man, I wish she could see me.”
At least some of his old classmates can bear witness. A front row of chairs is being set aside for his friends and family at the commencement and he is throwing a graduation party June 3.
“Everybody can come,” he said. “I can’t wait.”
The school even made a special commencement invitation for Shuker, changing the Class of 2017 to the Class of 1964.
“We wanted to make this special for not only Mr. Shuker but also the students at the school,” said Alex Renteria, spokeswoman for Denver Public Schools. “Here is a man who gave up a chance to get his high school diploma to serve his country. And even after all this time, his high school graduation is something he wants more than anything.”
“I think kids need to see that,” she said.
Shuker is getting his high school diploma through Operation Recognition, a national program that awards diplomas to qualified World War II, Korea and Vietnam era veterans. It is offered locally by the Colorado Board of Veterans Affairs in cooperation with the Colorado Department of Education and the Colorado Association of School Boards.
“One day these individuals were carrying textbooks and the next they were carrying weapons in order to protect our nation and preserve our freedom,” said Renteria. “The sacrifices they made changed their lives and teenage experiences and, in turn, made ours better.”
Shuker grew up in Denver and began attending Lincoln High as a sophomore in 1961. But problems with this stepfather drove him to join the Army after his junior year. That and a family history of military service.
“Just about my whole family was in the military at one time or another,” said Shuker. “I guess I wanted to be a hero too.”
Because he was 17, Shuker’s mom had to release him to the Army. He trained to be a mechanic to repair tanks and Jeeps.
A few days after President Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, he was shipped to Munich, Germany, to help patrol the Berlin Wall. “Those were tense times and scary, especially for a young kid,” Shuker said.
His Jeep patrol was shot at several times by grey-suited Russian soldiers but Shuker, who manned a M-60 machine gun, couldn’t shoot back. “They said that would start an international incident,” he said.
The East German soldiers were much friendlier and talked to the Americans a lot. One East German in particular begged to be taken over to West Germany.
“So a bunch of us just grabbed him and drug him over the wall,” Shuker said.
After four years, Shuker knew he didn’t want to make a career out of the Army. He returned to Denver, married his high school sweetheart and started working as a mechanic. He later joined the U.S Postal Service and retired in 2001.
He never considered going back to high school when he was younger. “I was just 20 when I got out of the Army, but I was a changed person by then and I had other things in mind and decided to move on with my life,” he said.
But last year Shuker heard about Operation Recognition and realized how much he coveted an actual diploma from Lincoln High. He contacted the school and arrangements were made.
“All this time I wanted this,” Shuker said. “I wanted that diploma. To get this is another world to me.”