After 60 years, last of original Code Talkers receives diploma from Kansas
By Noel Lyn Smith
ALBUQUERQUE, November 21, 2012
(Special to the Times – Donovan Quintero)
A rt has been described as lacking a satisfactory definition, that same description could be applied to Chester Nez.
Through the years, Nez has held many roles in life but being an artist has been key to his survival.
For years his artistic view and painting skills provided for his family as they lived here.
At 91, Nez continues to draw even if the images he produces are not as detailed like before.
It was commercial arts that Nez, who is the last of the original 29 Navajo Code Talkers, was studying at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kan. after his Marine service.
That study came to a halt in 1952 after exhausting his GI Bill funding.
He left KU without a degree, moved here to start a family but continued to develop his art skills while working as a painter at the Raymond G. Murphy VA Medical Center.
To this day, the murals Nez painted in 1972 remain on the walls of the center's recreation hall.
On Nov. 12, KU presented Nez with the degree he was working towards 60 years ago.
The new KU alumnus along with his son, Michael Nez, sat in the living room of the house they share to talk about the diploma.
"I was very happy and very glad to receive my degree, a bachelor of arts," Nez said. "I'm very proud to have earned something like that."
Sitting nearby was the degree in its leather cover with "The University of Kansas" stamped in gold and a white KU tassel hanging from a lamp.
Now that Nez is a college graduate, he offered some advice for students.
"I think going to college or university is one of the best things anyone can do," he said. "I would like to see a lot of these young people going to high school and college to graduate and learn."
Nez remembered some of his art class experiences.
"What I really liked up there was doing portraits of people, it's just like taking pictures of people," he said. "Michelangelo is my favorite artist. He's an old charmer, he's one of the best."
"I think it was something that he always wanted to finish," Michael said.
On Michael's Smartphone is a photograph of a fancy dancer that his dad drew in 1942 at the request of a Marine corporal.
"I was surprised when I saw this because I often wondered what he did before," Michael said.
He remembers as a child seeing his father's sketchbooks, which were placed into storage after Nez and his wife divorced.
Michael recalled his father working on a mural for a Baptist church here in the 1960s, the painting depicted Jesus' baptism by John the Baptist in the Jordan River.
The painting was so large that his father worked on it in the carport of the family home.
"That mural, to me had to be huge because I was small," Michael said. "I don't know where that Baptist church is now because I was really young and I don't know if it's still there but I always remember that."
To this day Nez continues to take pen to hand and draw. Some of his recent drawings are of a Navajo man smoking a cigar while staring at the distance.
From 1942 to 1945, Nez served as a Marine in the all-Navajo 382nd Platoon.
After completing his service in 1945, he enrolled at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence to complete his high school studies.
He started school when he was nine years old, and at 18 and a sophomore, he enlisted.
He graduated from Haskell in May 1947 then enrolled full time at KU but his studies were ceased when the Marine reserves assigned him to serve in the Korean War.
When Michael asked his father what year he started at KU, Chester replied, "Oh man, it was a long time ago...I think I started in '45."
His guess was close.
Chester started attending KU in fall 1946, which might be tied to his course work at Haskell, said Gavin Young, the provost communications coordinator at KU.
His first full semester was fall 1947 and his last semester was fall 1952.
There is a gap between spring 1950 and fall 1952, which is when Chester served in the Korean War.
He completed 10 semesters before he was forced to withdraw in 1952.
The process for awarding the bachelor's degree started after Chester visited KU in September for a signing of his book, "Code Talker: The First and Only Memoir By One of the Original Navajo Code Talkers of WWII."
At first the Nez family thought Chester was receiving an honorary degree but were informed later that is was going to be a bachelor's degree.
Joining Nez at the ceremony was Michael, Michael's wife Rita, their sons Lathan and Michael, their daughter Shawnia, Shawnia's husband Justin, Shawnia's son Emery, three of Nez' granddaughters, and Judith Avila, who co-authored Nez' memoir.
It was a busy day with interviews before and after the graduation, which was packed with KU administrators, students, staff, faculty, Haskell officials, and veterans.
"As a member of a generation that made great sacrifices to the United States during World War II, and as a member of an underrepresented minority for which we seek greater inclusion, Mr. Nez you represent the diversity of heritage that makes KU a great place to be. Our university is proud to call him a Jayhawk alumnus and graduate," said Danny Anderson, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences during the ceremony.
In news footage from the event at Lied Center Pavilion, onlookers watched Anderson present the diploma to Nez, who sported a red baseball cap with "Navajo Code Talker" embroidered in yellow.
With a blue and red KU tassel hanging from his cap, Nez told news station KSNT that he remembered attending ball games at KU as a student.
"I was very unhappy about the whole situation when I left there then I think back and try to remember a lot of things that I went through at the university but I'm very happy to say that I sure like the University of Kansas and I sure appreciate this school," he said in the interview.
In addition to the degree, Nez received a key to the city from Lawrence Mayor Bob Schumm, a cedar box from Stephen Prue, executive assistance to the president of Haskell, and a KU class ring.
Among those in attendance was Rhonda LeValdo, a faculty member at Haskell.
"I was honored to have been there, it was very emotional to see him get his degree after waiting for so long, not only for myself, but a lot of people said that," she wrote in an email to the Times.
LeValdo earned her bachelor and master degrees in journalism from KU and warmly welcomed the new addition to the KU family.
"I had tears in my eyes when they gave him his degree, I am extremely proud to be KU alumni and glad that they could do this...we need to support our veterans in any way possible," she wrote. "They put their lives on the line for all of us."