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Saluting a 94-year-old Grad

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

In June of 1941, Lyle Francis Robert Knudson, a University of Wisconsin senior from Racine, was called to active duty in the U.S. Navy. He was told to report to the Great Lakes Naval Training Center in Illinois on June 13, the same day on which his last two final exams were scheduled.

Knudson sent a telegram to the Navy indicating that it would be impossible for him to get there because he had to take his finals that day.

The Navy responded with one word: "Imperative."

So Knudson left the university early and never got the chance to pass those two final exams and receive his commerce degree. There was no business school at the university in 1941, but commerce degrees were offered through the College of Letters and Science.

Sixty-nine years later, the degree is finally in Knudson's hands, thanks to a very determined friend and fellow Badger alumnus and the Wisconsin School of Business, which recently granted Knudson a bachelor's degree in business administration with majors in finance, investment and banking. The registrar's office sent the diploma to him about a month ago.

"Mr. Knudson received a Wisconsin BBA degree because he had earned it, and we are proud to have him as an alumnus," says Ken Kavajecz, associate dean of full-time MBA and undergraduate programs at the Wisconsin School of Business.

At 94, Knudson is believed to be the UW-Madison's eldest degree recipient.

Joseph Battenburg, who received his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from the University of Wisconsin in 1967, met Knudson when he and his wife moved to the Olympic Peninsula in the state of Washington.

"I met Lyle several years ago, and all he could talk about was his time at the UW and his war experiences," says Battenburg. "I learned that he had just missed receiving his degree by a gnat's eyelash."

Battenburg took it upon himself to get the World War II veteran his degree, and he doggedly worked to achieve that goal, calling everyone he could think of who could make it happen.

"Being a Wisconsin grad myself, I felt that something should be done to assist him," says Battenburg. "Many universities have given students credit or degrees for life experiences, or because they have had their studies interrupted or at one time were refused admission to universities."

On Nov. 2, Battenburg and some of Knudson's other friends and neighbors gathered at the Shanghai Restaurant in Port Townsend, Wash., to honor Knudson and celebrate the long-overdue receipt of his degree.

"I am so happy for Lyle — a person who years ago gave so much for our nation," says Battenburg. "He is on cloud nine. He wears his Wisconsin cap and has a Wisconsin alumni license plate frame on his car, and he finally has his diploma."

"It was an honor for me to receive my BBA degree from the UW after all these years," says Knudson. "I have many fond memories of my time in Madison, where I met my future wife while we were both students. I still am an avid Badger fan and don't miss a game, even at 94 years of age."

When Knudson joined the Navy, he had no prior flying experience. He wanted to fly amphibious patrol planes, but that didn't happen. He was in flight training in Texas when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Knudson was assigned to the Navy's first squadron of four-engine heavy bombers and eventually flew B-24 bombers at night out of Guadalcanal.

Knudson was honored with the Distinguished Flying Cross "for heroism and extraordinary achievement in several flights as co-pilot of a heavy bomber plane in the Solomon Islands, January through September, 1943.

When Knudson came home from the war he went into the construction business, building homes in the Milwaukee area. Then he went into the roofing business in Cleveland. After later moving to Oregon, Knudson started an industrial machinery manufacturing and sales business with headquarters in Kent, Wash., in 1962.

He ended up in Port Townsend on the extreme northeast corner of the Olympic Peninsula, where he still resides.

Knudson and his wife, Ruth Merkle of Appleton, bought land on Marrowstone Island. They became master gardeners, specializing in rhododendrons and fruit trees. Ruth died in 1991.

Knudson later applied his knowledge of fruit trees to teach courses on apples at the University of Washington's Center for Urban Agriculture. He continues to love learning and reads several books a week.

In an interview with The Port Townsend Leader, Knudson shared two pieces of advice: "Always try to be honest. Always try." And he offered this wording from a sign he has held onto since his college days at Wisconsin: "Persistence will triumph."