Honorary diploma ‘means everything’ to Jasper man

Daniel Vasta/The Herald
Ronnie Brown poses for a portrait at the Jasper Public Library on Tuesday. Later this month, the Jasper man will receive a plaque that recognizes him as a “most honored and appreciated member of the Jasper High School Class of 1985.”

By LEANN BURKE
lburke@dcherald.com

JASPER — Almost 35 years after he would have graduated high school, lifelong Jasper resident Ronnie Brown will be recognized as an honorary member of Jasper High School’s class of 1985.

Brown attended Jasper High School until dropping out at the beginning of his senior year to join the Army. He spent three years on active duty with the Army before being honorably discharged and returning to Jasper, where he made a living working several jobs over the years, including work on several farms, a couple of jobs at Jasper Rubber and work with the R.J. Corman Railroad in Kentucky. Although he got his GED and was able to make a living, he’s always wished for a Jasper High School diploma.

“I think I missed out on some job opportunities [not having a diploma],” Brown said. “I got a GED, but whoopie-doo. Anybody can go out and get a GED. But to get a diploma — that shows you did it. You stuck it out.”

Although Brown didn’t stick it out through high school, he knows he stuck it out in other ways in the military. His first experience with the military came when he was 15 years old. Brown and his father, a Vietnam veteran, didn’t have a good relationship, and it seemed Brown’s father had decided his son should join the military.

One day, Brown got off the school bus to find a Marine recruiter at his house. His father had already signed the papers that allowed Brown to join through a delayed entry program. Brown spent the next two summers in training for the Marines with a guaranteed spot in the Marine Corps after graduation.

The summer before his senior year of high school, Brown said, he was in training in San Diego. When it came time for him to return to Jasper for school, he couldn’t get home. When he finally made it back to Jasper on a two-day leave, he spent the time home in a classroom at Vincennes University Jasper Campus taking the tests to earn a GED. With that in hand, he returned to San Diego where his commanders said he could leave the Marines — something he’d been wanting to do — if he joined the Army instead. That move allowed him to come back to Jasper for a few months and complete the first quarter of his senior year. But he didn’t finish the year.

“Between my dad, my [Army] training starting and me being so close to 18, it was more important to me, I thought, to go ahead and do my training and get on the road to a career,” Brown said.

For the next three years, Brown worked in a medevac unit with the Army. When he returned home, he had post-traumatic stress disorder, though he wasn’t diagnosed until many years later. He drifted from job to job until 2002, when he got a job at Jasper Rubber and reconnected with an old classmate, Zach McCune. The two kept in touch after Brown left his job at Jasper Rubber.

In 2014, Brown hit hard times. He was diagnosed with leukemia, which he’s still fighting five years later, and found out he’d need back surgery. The back surgery was urgent. Without it, Brown could have lost the ability to walk.

“I knew my back was bad,” Brown recalled, “but not that bad.”

Between the chemotherapy and surgery recovery, Brown was out of work for more than a year. When he finally felt up to working again, McCune helped him get a part-time job at Jasper Rubber. Brown worked there for a while until he realized his body couldn’t handle it.

“They say hard work never did hurt nobody, but I think that’s a lie,” Brown said. “I believe hard work doesn’t hurt anybody who does a little hard work for a time. But anybody who does hard work over a long period ... you can tell, because they’re all crippled up and stuff.”

Brown figures he’s seeing firsthand now the strain a life of constant hard work puts on a body. He’s only 51 years old, he said, but his body is failing him, leaving him unable to work like he always has and like other people his age do.

“I just want to be like a normal person, you know?” he said. “And I don’t feel like it.”

Although Brown was no stranger to struggle when he was diagnosed with his health issues, the last few years have been especially difficult. But he’s gotten through it thanks to his Christian faith and the support of friends like McCune, he said. That friendship led to Brown’s recognition as an honorary member of the JHS class of 1985.

One day, McCune and Brown were talking about their high school days, and Brown mentioned how much everyone in the class meant to him and how much he regretted not graduating with them. That gave McCune an idea.

“We have a pretty close-knit class, for the most part,” McCune said. “I thought, we have to do something [for Brown]. We can’t say no. It’ll mean so much to him.”

McCune called fellow 1985 graduate Glenn Buechlein, who is the vice principal at JHS. The two came up with the idea to make Brown an honorary member of the class of 1985 in honor of his military service. Buechlein brought the idea to Greater Jasper Superintendent Tracy Lorey and the school board, and they were all on board. Later this month, Lorey and members of the school board will present a plaque to Brown that recognizes him as a “most honored and appreciated member of the Jasper High School Class of 1985.”

Brown tears up thinking about it.

“It means everything to me. It’s just everything to me right now in my life,” Brown said. “It’s amazing.”

Anyone wishing to donate funds to help Brown pay for medical expenses can make a deposit at ay Old National Bank location.




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