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A 104-year-old WWII veteran realizes his dream of becoming a college student

Chester Gryzbowski has earned a yellow RAT cap and a T-book — symbols of student life at Georgia Tech — but he is no ordinary freshman.

At a ceremony on Saturday, the 104-year-old World War II veteran realized a dream that had been deferred for more than 80 years when Georgia Tech made him an honorary student.

Lovell Federal Health Care Center
Chester Gryzbowski, a 104-year-old World War II veteran, was made an honorary student by Georgia Tech after having expressed a life-long dream of wanting to get a civil engineering degree at the university.

"Engineering has always interested me because I love math, I love building, and it would have been a great way to help people,'' Gryzbowski, who lives in hospice care at Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center in Chicago, told TODAY through a hospital spokesperson.

"I just want to say thanks for this great honor."

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Gryzbowski, who will turn 105 on June 27, is certainly the only freshman at Georgia Tech who was alive when the tradition of the RAT cap began in 1915. The small yellow cap was created to signify students' freshman status to the rest of the campus.

Illinois congressman Bob Dold also presented him with a special letter of recognition from Georgia Tech and a T-book of traditions given to every freshman to get them acquainted with the school's history. Gryzbowski told stories from his time in the service and the nearly 30 years he spent as a butcher at what is now Jewel-Osco grocery stores.

"When Truman dropped the bomb, I waved my hat in the air and said, 'I'm going home.' I had had enough," Gryzbowski said during the ceremony.

The combination of the Great Depression and World War II prevented Gryzybowski from realizing his dream of studying civil engineering at the university. After he graduated from high school, his parents couldn't afford to send him to college.

He went to work for the Civilian Conservation Corps in various states, earning money to help his family. Gryzbowski then returned to work as a butcher for his father before being drafted into the U.S. Army in 1942.

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When he returned to the South Side of Chicago from fighting in the Pacific, where he earned two bronze stars, he went straight into the workforce to support his wife and 3-year-old daughter. However, his love for engineering never dimmed, and he still keeps a trigonometry book in his room at the hospital.

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"I am so pleased my dad is being honored in this way,'' Gryzbowski's daughter, Carol Ann Touchberry, told TODAY through a hospital spokesperson. "He has always been so kind and selfless. He’s a wonderful man and wonderful father. We are so proud of him."

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Steve Rutledge, a volunteer at the hospital who works with the No Veteran Dies Alone program, first heard Gryzbowski's story and reached out to Dold's office, which then contacted Georgia Tech.

"I can't thank you enough for the sacrifices you have made to serve our country and our world,'' Georgia Tech president G.P. "Bud" Peterson wrote to Gryzybowski in a letter. "If you are ever in the area, we at Georgia Tech would be honored to have you on our campus.''

Follow TODAY.com writer Scott Stump on Twitter.

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