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Hess to pick up his diploma — 65 years later

By James Grob,

On Sunday, Phil Hess will don the traditional cap and gown and pick up his high school diploma with the Charles City graduating class of 2019.

He’ll be easy to spot during the ceremony — just look for the guy who’s about 65 years older than the rest of the class.

“As far as I know, I’m gonna walk right with them,” Hess said. “I hope so.”

Hess to pick up his diploma — 65 years later
Phil Hess, age 83, will officially receive his honorary degree at the graduation ceremony Sunday, which will be at Comet Gym at Charles City Middle School at 1:30 p.m. (Press photo James Grob.)

Hess, age 83, will officially receive his honorary degree at the graduation ceremony Sunday, which will be at Comet Gym at Charles City Middle School at 1:30 p.m.

“I’m very honored,” said Hess, who dropped out of Charles City High School in the spring of 1951, at the end of his freshman year. “This is something that I never would’ve asked for, and never expected. I’m so delighted.”

Susan and Carl Jacob sent a letter of recommendation on Hess’s behalf to the school district last year. Hess would have been in the class of 1954 — which will have its 65th reunion in August.

“He has attended reunions for what would have been his graduating class of 1954, but an honorary diploma would truly make him part of the class at their 65th class reunion this fall,” Susan Jacob said in the letter.

“I had no idea,” Hess said. “I didn’t know anything about it until the superintendent, Mike Fisher, called me last August.”

Hess said that Fisher told him he’d looked at his record, and noticed that “you don’t have something you should have — a diploma from Charles City. We want you to walk with our seniors next spring and get your diploma.”

The Charles City School District adopted an honorary diploma procedure this year. The purpose is for the district to celebrate and honor individuals who, “by virtue of their distinguished service or outstanding achievements, have demonstrated over their life and career the personal qualities and values the district outlines in its mission, vision and core values.”

“This has to be an exceptional person, and under exceptional circumstances,” Fisher said at the school board meeting when the honorary degree procedure was approved. “He (Hess) went on to lead a really productive life, and has been a tremendous community resource for our town.”

“I want to personally thank the members of the community who offered this,” said school board member Josh Mack at the same meeting. “I think this particular individual is really deserving, and I’m excited that he gets to walk.”

Hess and his wife, Samantha, currently spend summers in Charles City and winters near Sedona, Arizona — where Hess lived for nearly 50 years before moving back to the area 14 years ago. The two have seven daughters and one son between them, and a total of 23 grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

He was born in Waverly and grew up on farms around the area in Plainfield, Greene and about a mile south of Charles City. He attended various country schools — and one semester at Immaculate Conception — through 8th grade, and went to Charles City High School his freshman year.

“There are different reasons why I dropped out,” Hess said. “One reason, I was bored. The schooling I got at the country schools — everything they were trying to teach me in ninth grade, I already had.”

Another reason for dropping out — Hess “went to work.” He got a job to help the family out with money.

“I was probably stupid for dropping out, but back then it was a different situation than it is now. Education wasn’t as important,” Hess said.

He worked various jobs — at a local electric shop, moving houses, etc. Through friends, Hess found out about work available with a tree company in Ohio. After that, he returned to Charles City in 1953 and started his own tree company here. He turned 18 in March of 1954 and enlisted in the U.S. Air Force.

One of his duties in the air force was aerial photography, and Hess was part of a crew that helped map Alaska before it became a state. Hess received his GED at Palm Beach Air Force Base in West Palm Beach, Florida, in 1956.

He served eight years in the Air Force reserve, and was encouraged to take the civil service exam, ending up working for the Postal Service.

Hess became a postmaster in 1975, and was a postmaster in Clarkdale, Arizona, from 1975 to 1992.

He was working for the post office in Arizona when the first, five-digit ZIP code was implemented. As postmaster, Hess was responsible for helping to implement and market the mail-sorting code, including talking to future letter senders at area high schools.

Because of his experience implementing ZIP codes, Hess was asked to help install it in various places in the southwest United States. After training in Memphis, Tennessee, he assigned the codes in northern Arizona, then implemented the codes in the rest of Arizona, parts of California, all of Nevada, and parts of Utah. He audited the program for southern Colorado.

He said his mapping experience in the Air Force was one of the reasons he was chosen for the job.

Hess was named Postmaster of the Year in 1990 by the National Association of Postmasters.

While working for the post office, Hess also furthered his education.

“I’ve always said education is worth it,” he said.

In 1972 he received his associate degree from Eastern Arizona College and in 1974 his bachelor’s degree in business administration from Arizona State University. He taught for two semesters at Eastern Arizona College in 1974-75.

Hess retired from the post office in 1992, and stayed in Arizona, where he built houses for 15 years. Eventually, he ended up back in Charles City, because of another interest — he owns and collects several tractors.

“I just needed a place to play with my tractors, and couldn’t afford the land out there,” he said.

Samantha, his wife, said she fell in love with Charles City immediately, and they live very close to the high school. Samantha said they “absolutely love” hearing the marching band when it comes by, and they love the sounds of the football games on Friday nights in the fall.

Hess said that picking up his diploma on Sunday with a large group of younger people won’t be altogether new to him.

“I was 38 years old when I graduated from ASU, and most of the graduates were in their early 20s,” he said. “Of course, that was a class of about 6,000 people.”

He said that he hopes his presence on Sunday won’t distract from Charles City’s graduating Class of 2019.

“I don’t want this to overshadow or take the place of any of the seniors,” Hess said. “They come first.”