(Fred Lynch) [Order this photo]
On Friday evening, a speechless Percival was presented with his high school sheepskin at a party in his honor at Kimbeland Country Club in Jackson. Axtell school principal/counselor Bob Bartkoski drove 600 miles to do the honors.
Bartkoski said the diploma is based on Percival's life experiences and accomplishments. The principal told about 50 friends and family members assembled in one of the golf club's banquet rooms that he was honored to be there.
"This is the first time we've ever done this," he said.
Percival quit school in the second month of his 10th-grade year to help support his family, which included five siblings. His father worked in Wichita, 250 miles from home. Axtell is an agricultural community in northeast Kansas.
He followed his dad to Wichita and got a job in a grocery store in the basement of the Lassen Hotel, which supplied several restaurants in the area. Percival, now 78, remembers going for months at a time without seeing sunlight. He decided it was time to get another job, so he went to work as a delivery boy at a nearby paint company.
Since then, he's mostly worked for sign companies in Cape Girardeau, Tulsa, Okla., Louisville, Ky., and New Orleans. He also owned his own sign company in Wichita from 1954 to 1964. The first sign firm he worked for was Miracle Sign Co., whose motto was: "If it's a good sign, it's a miracle."
Wearing a paper mortar and tassel, Percival accepted a framed diploma and a blue plastic folder with Axtell High School emblazoned on it from Bartkoski.
Hardly able to speak, Percival said afterward he got "all choked up."
"It was overwhelming. All my friends came out. It was gratifying to have them all here. It feels like (you were) fortunate to be at your funeral while you're still alive," he said.
"It's great. I couldn't get over the fact that the principal drove that far," he added.
Now he said he'll feel he's a legitimate member of the class of '53.
Percival earned a GED in 1972, and was told at the time he could contact his high school to get a diploma, which he did about 15 years ago. His request was denied.
Meanwhile, he became a member of Mensa and Intertell. Mensa is open to people who score in the 98th percentile on intelligence tests, and Intertell is for those who score in the 99th percentile. He's still a member of Mensa, but not Intertell.
During his life, Percival has been an artist, inventor, writer, builder, winemaker, garage- and yard-sale shopper and golfer, to name a few things.
At a reunion last spring, Percival talked to Bartkoski and told the principal he was a member of Mensa and Intertell. Three months later, he got an email requesting documentation of his accomplishments, testimonials from co-workers, his GED, Mensa membership and other items. He didn't hear anything back for another three months until school started. Bartkoski called Percival on his cellphone while Percival was on the golf course and told him his request for a diploma had been approved. Bartkoski suggested to his board that he drive out here to present it to Percival in person.
"It was quite a shock," Percival said of the news.
His wife, Elvia, organized Friday's festivities and his daughter, Cheryl Lou Austin, and sister, Carol Fike, and her husband, Darrell, were among those in attendance, along with many friends.
"I'm very proud," Elvia said of her husband of 40 years. "I don't tell him because I don't want him to get the big head."
Pertinent address: 2175 E. Jackson Blvd., Jackson