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Navajo Code Talker Honored With Degree and Key to the City

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Campus-wide activities at the University of Kansas (KU) for Veterans Day included a touching ceremony November 12 honoring Chester Nez, the last surviving member of the original 29 Navajo code talkers from World War II.

“This is probably the final thing that he wanted to finish in his life,” his son Michael told the Lawrence Journal-World.

The now 91-year-old Nez was forced to withdraw from the University of Kansas in 1952 when his GI Bill funding ran out, putting a hold on his bachelor of fine arts degree.

Nobody knew then that he had been an integral part of World War II, creating a code using his native Navajo language that the Japanese never deciphered. His secret identity as a Navajo code talker was kept classified until 1968.

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“He’s received a lot of awards, a lot of plaques and a lot of things from different organizations,” Michael told the Lawrence Journal-World. “But I think this [the degree] is up there on the top.”

During the event on November 12, Nez was also presented with a key to the city by Lawrence Mayor Bob Schumm, and Kevin Corbett, president of the KU Alumni Association, presented Nez with a class ring.

Before handing Nez his degree, Danny Anderson, the dean of KU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, said Nez’s contributions as a code talker demonstrates how cultural diversity is important to society.

“The awarding of Mr. Nez’s degree reflects our aspirations for our graduates to change the world,” Anderson said.

Judith Avila, who co-authored Nez’s memoir told the Lawrence Journal-World: “Oftentimes he asked people at book signings, ‘Have you ever been to Lawrence, Kansas? That’s where I went to school.’ Now he can say, ‘That’s where I got my degree.’”