It's About Time: 99-year-old Veteran Finally Gets His Commencement Ceremony

May 05, 2023

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Lew Griffith has three degrees, including a master's, but this year, at age 99, he is attending his first commencement ceremony.

A nearly 30-year career in the U.S. military as an engineer and pilot that spanned World War II, Korea and the Vietnam War interrupted this Texas Engineer's education and his ability to walk with fellow graduates. But at this year's Cockrell School Commencement Ceremony, Griffith was honored for his military service and his commitment to education, despite all the obstacles that got in the way.

"The only graduation I ever attended before this one was at Brooks (Air Force Base in San Antonio)," said Griffith. "They blew a whistle and said fall in, they marched us out and pinned wings on us, and we got back to work."

Griffith missed his ceremony at Austin High School because he graduated early. And just a few months into his first year at UT Austin in 1942, he was called up to serve in World War II. He became a B-25 bomber pilot, and by the time he was 21, he had earned six air medals, flying 42 missions over Italy and Austria. Griffith flew a B-25 Mitchell, often bombing the Bremmer Pass (or as he says “working on the railroad”)

He later returned to the Forty Acres, earning a degree in civil engineering. But just before graduation, he was called up from the reserves to serve in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War in 1951.

Because of his experience in World War II and his education, he was able to switch his designation to engineer, and he deployed to Germany during that time. In 1956, Griffith and his family returned to the U.S. He obtained his master's degree from the University of California at Berkley, with a focus on sanitary engineering, and later got his P.E. (professional engineer) certification.

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But once again, duty called, and he was unable to attend his graduation ceremony at Berkley. He was reassigned before the ceremony.

"I never got to walk the line in high school, here at UT or at Berkley," Griffith said.

He went on to earn the Bronze Star for his engineering work in Vietnam in the 1960s. 

Griffith retired from the military in 1970, after 27 years and 16 moves across the U.S. and Europe. After his military retirement, Griffith went to work for the Texas Department of Solid Waste Management, applying his expertise in sanitary engineering.

Griffith's late wife of 67 years "volunteered" him in 1975 to work with Austin’s Settlement Home, which serves children who have experienced emotional trauma, abuse and neglect. Forty-seven years later, he still heads to his workshop every week to build equipment for the annual November garage sale at the Palmer Auditorium. 

Griffith has recently been honored for his service to the United States. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Mark Milley and his wife visited with Griffith in Washington D.C. to celebrate his 98th birthday. During that visit, Lew placed the wreath at Arlington Cemetery’s Tomb of the Unknown Solider. 

This past Pearl Harbor Day, Griffith was part of a group of Austin-area World War II veterans who traveled to the White House and met with President Joe Biden.