Telling Alaska’s Story: Anchorage man has a wrong made right more than 60 years later
West Anchorage High School presents new diploma to 80-year-old resident
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Billy Ray Macon Sr. has a lot to be proud of. The Anchorage resident raised a loving family, owned a successful contracting business, and even authored a book about how people could get along better in the world.
By all accounts, Macon is a success, but there’s something that has always made this 80-year-old feel a little bit like a failure. Something that happened more than 60 years ago.
Macon graduated from what was then Anchorage High School in 1961. He recalls his pride in stepping up to get his diploma only to see that it had been stamped in red with the words, “This student met minimum state requirements.” Instead of feeling proud, the red stamp made him feel ashamed.
“I had a family, and that was the only thing on my mind was to get a diploma,” he said.
The piece of paper didn’t reflect the hard work or the hardship Macon endured to make it through high school and support his family. A senior at age 19, he was already married, had a young child and another on the way.
Macon described their Mountain View home as a one-room shack with a bathroom, that didn’t have running water. Because he had no car, he walked an hour to school and back. There wasn’t much time before he had to head out for his night job on Elmendorf Air Force Base to support his family.
“I tried to do homework when I’d get home from school, but by the time I’d get to it a little bit, it was time to get on my walking track out to Elmendorf,” Macon said. “So I’d walk out to Elmendorf, work half the night and then walk all the way back.”
Macon’s wife, Lourdes, said the diploma was set aside and rarely talked about.
“His diploma was never on display,” she said. “It was in a plastic bag, put away.”
Billy Macon didn’t have time to dwell on it.
“I didn’t let that stop me, I had too many things on my plate,” he said.
But there was one person who knew the pain the red stamp had caused him: Macon’s granddaughter.
“It didn’t define his success, he went on to be an amazing success,” said Tafena Timpson. “It didn’t define who he was as a person. But to him, his pain and his hurt, it really weighed on him.”
Timpson wanted to do something for her grandfather but wasn’t sure exactly how. An earlier attempt to contact the Anchorage School District had gone nowhere. So instead, she wrote a moving social media post about the inspiring man her grandfather had become and the one thing that had bothered him all these years. She talked about why he deserved a new diploma without the red stamp. Something she hoped she could surprise him with for his 80th birthday.
The post caught the attention of Sven Gustafson, principal of West Anchorage High School, the same school that Macon had graduated from in 1961.
“If we can right a wrong from way back when, we might as well do it,” said Gustafson, promising to help. But he didn’t tell the family exactly what he had in mind.
On Jan. 28, the morning of Macon’s birthday, the family headed to West Anchorage High School intending to pick up the diploma from the front office. Macon himself had no idea what was going on, thinking they were going out for breakfast.
“Next thing I know, we pulling up in the school parking lot, and I said, ‘what is this?’ And I stepped inside and oh man, I could have fainted,” he said.
Gustafson had arranged a graduation ceremony just for Macon, complete with cap and gown, the West High choir, cheerleaders, and students in the audience. School district Superintendent Deena Bishop awarded Macon a new diploma. More than a few people shed some tears.
Macon left with something to be proud of.
“It’s unbelievable, it is unbelievable,” he said.
This time, he planned to hang his diploma on the wall.
Correction: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Tafena Timpson’s name.
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