Navajo Code Talker receives KU degree at age 91

Posted on Nov 14, 2012 in Alumni News and News

Sixty years after he had to end his studies because he’d exhausted his GI Bill funds, 91-year-old Chester Nez, former Marine and World War II Navajo Code Talker, received his KU degree in a Veterans Day ceremony at the Lied Center.

Nez was among the original 29 Navajo men the Marine Corps recruited in 1942 to develop a secret military code based on their native language. He and his fellow Code Talkers also functioned as living code machines, serving in two-man radio teams on Pacific theatre battlefields to transmit troop movements, artillery coordinates and other battle orders. By the end of the war, their ranks had grown to more than 400 and their code was never broken.

Danny Anderson, g’82, PhD’85, dean of the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, presented Nez his diploma at the Nov. 12 ceremony, noting the momentcarried more than the usual symbolism. “The awarding of Mr. Nez’s degree reflects our aspirations for our graduates to change the world,” Anderson said. “His story as a Navajo Code Talker certainly made a significant impact in the outcome of the second world war. This award also exemplifies how the talents and the knowledge embodied in diverse ethnic and cultural identities, like Mr. Nez’s fluency in Navajo, are necessary for our collective prosperity.”

Nez came to KU in 1946 after earning his high school diploma at Haskell. He studied art for 10 semesters between 1946 and 1952, taking time out to serve in the military again in the Korean War. After leaving KU, he returned to his native New Mexico to raise a family. In September 2011, he published a memoir, Code Talker, written with Judy Scheiss Avila. Now in its 11th printing, the book details how Nez and his fellow Navajos drew on the unique qualities of their native language–which Nez was forbidden to speak at the government boarding schools where he was educated–to build a military code that was crucial to U.S. victory in World War II.

“I think his degree was one thing in his life that was missing,” Avila said. “Because he put an effort into it, and unlike most other things he put an effort into, it didn’t happen. So it means a tremendous amount to him to be appreciated by the University he loved. He really loved it here.”

Kevin Corbett, c’88, drew oohs and ahs from standing-room-only crowd at the Lied Center Pavilion when he presented Nez with a 2012 class ring. Other gifts included a custom-made cedar box from the Haskell University Veterans Club, and a Pendleton Blanket from the KU visual art department.

Said Nez, c’12, “I am so happy and proud to be one of the Jayhawks.”

–written by Steve Hill

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