Courtesy Alvin ISD
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March 25, 2015 12:30 PM

When he was 17, Jimmie Turpin dropped out of Alvin High School in Texas to join the Navy.

Now, 54 years later, the 72-year-old Vietnam veteran has crossed off what he says was at the top of his bucket list. He has finally received his high school diploma.

“I’m so proud about my high school doing this for me,” Turpin tells PEOPLE. “My school really bent over backwards to show their appreciation.”

He was presented a letterman’s jacket along with his diploma at the school district’s board meeting on March 10 in front of about 200 people, including his family, friends and alumni.

In 2002, Turpin read an article in his local paper, the Alvin Sun-Advertiser, about another veteran who was going to accept his diploma through Operation Recognition, a program that awards high school diplomas to war veterans who left high school early to serve the country.

When Turpin was 17, after completing his junior year, his mother signed the papers for him to leave school and join the military.

“I felt at the time, being 17 and young and not very bright, I decided to leave school for it,” Turpin tells PEOPLE. “But I didn’t think about the repercussions of not receiving my diploma.”

Turpin says his newly accepted diploma, dated “May 31, 1961” – his class’s graduation date – will eventually adorn a wall in his Texas home in a wooden frame he plans to make.

Daniel Combs, Alvin Independent School District director of communications, says witnessing Turpin receive his diploma was one of the highlights of his career as an educator.

“Our district and our community values and honors the sacrifice and service of those in the military, and being able to participate in the recognition of Mr. Turpin and his service is an honor that goes beyond words,” Combs tells PEOPLE.

To savor the full commencement experience, Turpin will walk the stage with the Class of 2015 at Alvin High School on June 5, the same day as his granddaughter, Julia, who attends a different high school in the area.

“I’m so honored that I get to see my granddaughter do hers and then at night I get to walk at mine,” Turpin says. “I’m so blessed and honored with this that I’m really just at a loss for words.”

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