LAWRENCE — As part of university-wide Veterans Day activities, the University of Kansas College of Liberal Arts and Sciences will honor the last surviving original World War II Navajo Code Talker for his service by presenting him with a diploma 60 years after he last took classes.
In the spring of 1952, Marine Corps veteran Chester Nez had to abandon his studies at the University of Kansas because he had exhausted his GI Bill funding. Unable to secure enough money to complete his fine arts studies, Nez, a Navajo who grew up in New Mexico before attending boarding school in Arizona, relocated to Albuquerque, N.M., to find work and start a family.
All that time, Nez was keeping a secret – one he and others would keep for more than 20 years. He was among the original 29 members of the all-Navajo 382nd Marine Platoon, now known more commonly as Code Talkers. During World War II, a total of 420 Code Talkers used a code based on the Navajo language that was devised by the original 29 recruits.
Now 91 years old and the last remaining survivor of the original 29 Code Talkers, Nez will at long last receive his KU diploma.
The diploma will be presented by Dean Danny Anderson of the College.
"Chester Nez's contributions as a Navajo code talker and his pursuit of a BFA degree after World War II are exceptional," Anderson said. "The awarding of this diploma symbolizes our aspirations for our graduates to have an impact on the world and exemplifies how the talents and knowledge embodied in diverse ethnic and cultural identities, like Mr. Nez's fluency in Navajo, are necessary for our collective prosperity. It is an honor to recognize him."
The ceremony will begin at 11 a.m. Monday, Nov. 12, at the Lied Center Pavilion. The ceremony is free and open to the public as part of KU's Native Heritage Month. Additional presentations will be made by Haskell Indian Nations University, the KU Native Faculty and Staff Council, and the KU Alumni Association. Lawrence Mayor Bob Schumm will present Nez with keys to the city.
Nez will be joined at the ceremony by members of his family and by Kansas First Lady Mary Brownback, who welcomed Nez to Topeka in September during the Kansas Book Festival. Nez and Judith Schiess Avila are co-authors of the book "Code Talker: The First and Only Memoir by One of the Original Code Talkers of WWII."
A brief interview session will be held before the event at 10:30 a.m., including Nez and members of his family.