For the past several years, the numbers of nontraditional college students have been increasing.
But this past Monday, as part of its Veteran’s Day observance, the University of Kansas awarded a degree to one of its least traditional graduates ever: a 91-year-old former Navajo Code Talker.
A sunny conference room at KU’s Lied Center building couldn’t contain the crowd of about 300 who turned out Monday morning to see Navajo Code Talker Chester Nez. After the “Star Spangled Banner,” a former Haskell student started the ceremony with a prayer using both English and the Navajo language.
Kansas first lady Mary Brownback offered a welcome and Lawrence’s mayor offered a key to the city while Chester Nez grinned and nodded from his wheelchair. And when KU Dean Danny Anderson handed Nez an honorary diploma for a Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree, the crowd, which included many American Indians and veterans, jumped to its feet to applaud. Chester Nez then took the mic and briefly thanked the school and the audience.
If things had gone according to plan, Chester Nez would’ve received this degree about 60 years ago. In the 1952, he was studying painting at KU when his World War 2 and Korea-era GI Bill education benefits ran out. So he returned to his home state of New Mexico, where he started a job and settled into a quiet family life. But his son Michael explains that in the late ‘60s, when the military details were declassified, Chester was finally able to tell his family that he was a Code Talker.
“In 1968, he had us come into the living room,” says Michael Nez. “And he told us. He said this is actually what I did, but we didn’t understand exactly how important it was at the time. It wasn’t until Vietnam when I really felt the full extent of what and how important communications they did.”
In 1942, the Marines recruited 29 Navajos to convey secret messages in the Pacific War. The Navajo language was so complex and unfamiliar that the Japanese military was never able to decipher the messages these code talkers transmitted. Chester Nez was one of the original 29 of the all-Navajo 382nd Marine Platoon, which eventually had about 420 members. But as important as the Navajo language was to Chester Nez, he never taught it to his children.
“I speak very little,” says Michael Nez. “I was raised in Albuquerque all my life, so not many Navajos to converse with. And I asked Mom, ‘Why didn’t you guys teach us Navajo?’”
“And they said ‘We thought you’d do better in school.’ After finding out how they treated them when they were going to school cause they weren’t allow to speak their language when they went to school.”
Many of the Code Talkers became celebrities, frequently appearing on TV and in parades. But Michael Nez says his father mostly kept quiet and avoided the public spotlight. That is until 2002, when a major motion picture about Code Talkers came out.
“He didn’t really speak out until MGM came out with the movie ‘Windtalkers’ because, of course, they contacted us,” Michael Nez says. “Dad did news junkets for them, and we traveled from Hollywood to Washington DC to New York and then back to Hollywood for the premier at the Chinese theater. But, yeah, he’s pretty open about it now. He won’t go as far as telling some of the gory stuff cause it does bother him to talk about it, but … places he’s been, things that he did out there, yeah, he’s talk about some of that, but not a whole lot.”
Today, Chester Nez is the last surviving member of the original 29 Navajo Code Talkers. Over the years, he’s received countless awards, including the Congressional Gold Medal. But his son says Nez will value his diploma among his highest honors.
“To be honest, this is up there with him receiving the Gold Medal,” Michael Nez says. “It really is. I mean I, myself, when they presented him with his diploma, I was pretty emotional. Yeah, it means a lot to us, and I know to him. I could see it when he was looking at the diploma.”
Chester Nez lives in Albuquerque with his extended family. Last year, his autobiography “Code Talker” was released.