Amherst College to honor 4 WWII vets at graduation ceremony
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Amherst College student J. Bruce Duncan wanted to do his patriotic duty for his country.
So he left school and joined the Navy. He spent time in ports around the United States and went to Hiroshima just weeks after the atomic bomb was dropped on the city as part of American occupation forces in postwar Japan.
He left the Navy as a lieutenant junior grade and went to Harvard Law School, pursued a successful legal career, and raised a family.
But he never went back to Amherst to complete his undergraduate degree.
Duncan and three other former Amherst students — Richard Hunter, Frank Egloff, and C. Burns Roehrig — are receiving honorary bachelor’s degrees at the Massachusetts liberal arts college’s commencement tomorrow in recognition of the sacrifices they made for their country more than 65 years ago.
“It’s just what we had to do,’’ said Duncan, a chemistry major who played for the Lord Jeffs freshman football team and was editor of the school newspaper. “It seemed to make sense to me.’’
“My first reaction when they told me about this was that I had not earned it,’’ said Duncan, 87, who grew up in East Orange, N.J. and now lives in New Canaan, Conn., where he still practices law part time. “My second reaction was, ‘What the heck.’ ’’
His reaction is typical of the World War II generation, Amherst president Anthony Marx said. They rarely boast about the sacrifices they made when the country needed them.
“We had no idea these people were even out there,’’ Marx said.
It was Hunter’s daughter-in-law who first brought up the idea of honoring those who had left school in the 1940s to fight for their country.
Sara Hunter sent an e-mail to Marx early this year, describing her father-in-law’s fondness for his time at Amherst and his regret at never having completed his degree, even though he went on to earn an MBA from Harvard Business School that helped him run the family textile machinery business.
“Do you think there would be any way to award an honorary degree (or a genuine one) at graduation this year?’’ she wrote.
Marx didn’t hesitate. In fact, he initiated a search for other alumni who had left school early for military service during World War II who were still alive, and that’s how they found Egloff, Duncan, and Roehrig.
“Of course we wanted to honor these men who gave so much to the nation,’’ Marx said. “It’s a statement of pride and an acknowledgment of service.’’
Only Duncan and Egloff are scheduled to attend the commencement ceremony, where they will wear mortar boards and gowns just like the other roughly 480 undergraduates being awarded degrees.
Hunter, 89, and Roehrig, 88, cannot travel, but their degrees will be mailed to them.
The honor caught Egloff by surprise.
“You usually think of people getting honorary degrees for accomplishing something, but this is for not doing something,’’ Egloff, 85, said with a chuckle.
Like the others, the interruption to his education did not appear to hamper his career. A premed major at Amherst, the Army sent him to Harvard Medical School. He splits his time now between homes in the Woods Hole section of Falmouth and Westwood, and still practices psychiatry part time.