60 years later, graduation day

? Andy Kopp went to war in 1945 while his classmates strode across the stage. Last Friday, he made the trip himself.

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By BOB UPHUES

Andy Kopp couldn't make it to the graduation ceremony at Riverside-Brookfield High School back in the spring of 1945. He was busy helping transport troops to the Marshall Islands in the South Pacific aboard the USS LaPorte as a member of U.S. Navy.

Kopp's parents picked up his diploma that spring, but he never got the opportunity to sit among fellow students in a cap and gown and be officially recognized as an RB graduate. But last Friday evening, after 60 years, he did just that.

Clad in a royal blue gown and mortar board, Kopp, now 79, sat amid a sea of excited, youthful faces. During the ceremony, he strode to the speaker's podium and let his new classmates know why he was there.

"During World War II, at that time, all of the young men whose [18th] birthday was in the first semester, they were told they could stay in school until they finished that semester," Kopp said in a speech he prepared for the occasion.

"Seeing as how my birthday was in November, I therefore could stay in school until I finished the semester, which ended in January. In March, I was drafted and sent to Great Lakes for my naval training. When my RB class was graduating, I was on my way to the Marshall Islands in the Pacific."

Kopp stayed in the Navy until 1948. After the war ended in August 1945, he was stationed in Panama, where he was assigned the task of repairing radio transmitters. He turned that experience into his life's profession. Returning from the service, he married in 1952 and moved from Brookfield, which he had called home for 15 years, to Berwyn with his new wife.

But in 1954, he opened Kopp Sound Service at 9307 Lincoln Ave. in Brookfield, and has been repairing electronic equipment of all types ever since. RB, Kopp said, was one of the company's best customers.

Last year the business celebrated its 50th anniversary, and while it's still technically open, Kopp does repair jobs by appointment only these days.

Kopp said he's harbored a longing to officially participate in an RB graduation ceremony for a "long, long, long time" after reading about a similar experience in Reader's Digest. On Veterans Day 2004, Kopp was a guest speaker at the high school, and was walking by the superintendent's office, when the thought popped into his mind.

RB Superintendent/Principal Jack Baldermann said he was more than happy to accommodate Kopp's request.

"It was the least we could do for a guy who served at 18 years of age," Baldermann said. "Besides the kids graduating, it was the highlight of the night."

Chatting with some of the current grads, Kopp said several brought up that they were scared of the future and the uncertainty that now lay before them.

"My grandfatherly advice was, welcome to the real world," he said. "Whenever you do something new, you're always going to be scared."

Walking on stage at his high school graduation was a new one for the octogenarian, but he wasn't scared so much as excited.

"I wouldn't have missed it for the world," said Kopp, who received a standing ovation.

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