READFIELD — Although she left high school early so she could work, Darlene Champagne kept promising her father she would return to school and earn her diploma.

Today, Champagne will receive that all-important credential at a ceremony at Maranacook Community High School.

Her 90-year-old dad, Rudolph, won’t be there only to look on; he’ll receive his own diploma, more than 70 years after he left school to fight in World War II.

“I just never thought it was going to happen,” said Darlene Champagne, 47.

Champagne, who grew up in Readfield, left high school because she needed to earn a living. And although she didn’t have her high school diploma, she managed to get by over the years working in the restaurant business.

“I just lucked out,” she said.

But Champagne’s father kept on her about finishing her high school course work, and Champagne returned sporadically to take the classes she needed.

“It took me forever, going back and forth for that,” she said.

As she accrued more and more credits, inching closer to her diploma, Rudolph Champagne asked his daughter to help him obtain his own.

The elder Champagne, who grew up in Augusta with 12 siblings, had also left school before he finished to earn a living and support the younger members of his family.

“He had to go do what he had to do,” Darlene Champagne said.

Rudolph Champagne — who picked up the nickname “Champ” — earned some money boxing, and then joined the Army in 1940. He fought in the Pacific Theater of Operations during World War II, reaching the rank of Sergeant First Class and picking up four Purple Hearts.

“Daddy’s amazing,” Darlene Champagne said.

As she signed up this fall for the last course she needed for her diploma, Champagne told the Maranacook adult education staff about him.

“When I first heard the story, I said, ‘We have to do something,'” said Deb Bomaster, Maranacook’s adult education director. “It’s exciting just to see somebody like Darlene reach her goal.”

The 90-year-old Rudolph Champagne — who worked as a janitor at Togus Veterans Affairs Medical Center for most of his career — didn’t need to take on the course work he lacked to earn his diploma. He qualified for one under a state statute that allows high schools to award diplomas to anyone who left school early to fight in World War II or the Korean War.

When Darlene Champagne picks up her diploma at the ceremony this afternoon, she’ll be in disbelief.

“I just never thought beyond (earning the diploma) that it would be my father there, too,” she said. “It blows me away. He can’t believe it either.”

Rachel Newman, Darlene’s older sister, said her sister’s constant promise to finish high school became a tired pledge after a while.

“After a while, it was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah,'” Newman said. “I was hoping she’d get it before her kids got theirs.”

Darlene’s son, Chad, is a junior at Maranacook Community High School and her daughter, Chelsea, is an eighth-grade student at Maranacook Community Middle School.

Darlene Champagne said she plans to explore some new job opportunities and continue her education after picking up her diploma today. Throughout her life, she found she didn’t qualify for dozens of jobs she applied for since she didn’t have a diploma.

“I guess getting this diploma’s going to help me,” she said.

She’s currently working in the kitchen at Winthrop Manor Long Term Care, the home where her father lives, and she sees some potential for advancement there. With an additional course or two under her belt, Darlene could become an activities director.

She’s also thinking about art school.

“It sounds kind of crazy, but it’s something that I want to do.”

Matthew Stone — 623-3811, ext. 435

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