90-year-old World War II veteran is graduating cum laude with the Class of 2014 after 70 years

Walter Bunker came back to finish his Bachelor of Liberal Arts | May 6, 2014

Like most graduates, Walter Bunker is joining the throngs of 20-somethings across the country who will be graduating from college this spring. But Walker Bunker is not like most graduates. Bunker is 90 years old. And on Saturday, May 17, he is walking with his fellow graduates—all those 20-somethings—to receive a Bachelor of Liberal Arts, cum laude, from Xavier.

Bunker’s degree has been a long time coming. It’s been seven decades, in fact, since he started working on it. Now with 10 children of his own, all of whom have college degrees, he’s been feeling a little out of place.

“My son can say, ‘I have a master’s degree from Purdue.’ ‘My daughter in-law, ‘I have a master’s from Xavier,’ and my niece said she just got her master’s degree from North Carolina,” Bunker said. “I was thinking, I am getting older by degrees, so why don’t I get a degree?”

Bunker’s odyssey began in 1941 when he attended the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music with a scholarship in violin. But with World War II escalating, Bunker left school and enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corp.

“I was an idealistic kid,” Bunker said. “I wanted to be a pilot, but my left eye was 20/40 instead of 20/20 so I became a navigator and an officer. I flew missions overseas, but it was really late in the war, after D-Day.”

In 1944, Bunker received an honorary medical discharge and enrolled at Xavier to resume his college career. It only lasted a year.

“I had a friend in the service and he said, ‘You know we have the GI bill and we could go to school for free. The two most famous schools in the country are Notre Dame and Harvard. Why don’t you come up to Notre Dame with me?’ So I went to Notre Dame for a year and got very good grades, but I left because I thought Xavier was a superior school academically.”

So he returned to Xavier in 1946 only to withdraw again for medical reasons the next year. That’s the year he met and married the love of his life, Martha Heekin.

“That’s when my education truly started,” Bunker said with a smile.

For the next several decades, Bunker attended Xavier part time, slowly gaining college credits while working for his uncle’s real estate agency. The family's connections to Xavier run deep. His uncle, Walter S. Schmidt, is the 1905 Xavier graduate who funded the construction of Schmidt Fieldhouse and Schmidt Hall to honor his father and mother, Mr. and Mrs. Frederick A. Schmidt. Bunker's father, John L. Bunker, and his uncle, Walter Schmidt, were later given honorary doctorates by Xavier. The legacy continues today as Bunker's granddaughter, Sarah Bunker, is entering her junior year at Xavier.

During those years, Bunker also dabbled in teaching— first Sunday school and later at the University of Cincinnati (UC).

“UC wanted to develop a course in real estate in their business school, and I happened to be on their real estate board at the time,” Bunker said. “They assigned me to teach the history of real estate.”

Last August, Bunker called Xavier and related his story to Mary Kay Meyer in the Office of the Registrar. She set out to gather his transcripts. It didn’t take long.

“She called me and said, ‘Mr. Bunker, you are very close to getting your degree. You only need two credits.’ I didn’t even need a full course.”

So Bunker wrote creative short stories and sent two of them to Bill Boyce, a visiting professor. Meanwhile, Meyer searched for any extra credits she could find and uncovered Bunker’s transcripts from the military. It turned out he didn’t even need the extra two credits because he had 47 from his wartime service.

“Bill emailed me and said, ‘Walter, you can start sending out your invitations’,” Bunker said.

Recently, Bunker did a walk-through, recorded on video, of his commencement procession with his escort, Ryan Hoefer, an Iraq War veteran who is also graduating on May 17. It was strenuous for Bunker, and he was a little out of breath. No surprise. In October, he was diagnosed with lung cancer and has had 13 radiation treatments.

The cancer has not stopped him. On May 17, escorted by Hoeffer, Bunker will walk across the stage in the Cintas Center with the Class of 2014 and shake hands with Xavier’s President Michael J. Graham, S.J.

And he will get his degree. When asked what he wants to do with it, Bunker replied, “I want to be a cowboy.”