Television Academy mainstay Leo Chaloukian graduates from high school days before his 90th birthday.
The graduating class of 2017 at Belmont High School in downtown Los Angeles – Go, Sentinels! – was made up of the usual crop of exuberant teens, fresh with youthful aspirations, hopes and dreams for the future.
But one Belmont graduate’s dream was being fulfilled right there at the June 8th ceremony: Leo Chaloukian, class of 1945, who had been called up to military service in World War II two weeks before his graduation ceremony and had missed out on the chance to receive his diploma with his classmates. Ten days before he celebrated his 90th birthday, Chaloukian finally got to celebrate his high school graduation.
“At that time, in 1945, they were drafting men, and I was on the list,” recalls Chaloukian, who went on to an illustrious 60-year career as a sound executive and served as Television Academy president (the position now called chairman) for four years beginning in 1989; he’s now a board member of the Academy Foundation.
“I didn’t want to get drafted, because that would be the U.S. Army, and I didn’t want to be in the Army. I wanted to be in the U.S. Navy. My dad went with me to sign up. I asked, ‘I’m going to have a graduation in about a month. Will I be able to make that?’ They said, ‘Oh, yeah.’ Two weeks later, they called me up.”
Chaloukian, who was then 17, reported first to San Pedro, then was driven by his father to San Diego for boot camp. When his training ended, he was assigned to the battleship New York and a dangerous mission disabling explosive mines at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. He later saw battle against Japanese combatants in the Philippines.
Though Chaloukian built a successful career – during his 1976-1996 tenure as owner of Ryder Sound Services, company projects won 42 Emmys and an Oscar – and a loving, now-multi-generational family, something was still missing. In recent years, he told his family about the graduation milestone denied. The diploma had been mailed to his parents, who didn’t remember anything about it when he asked them; he did eventually find it.
“He was lamenting that he never got the chance to march on the field,” says daughter Kimme Black; with wife Virginia, Chaloukian also has a son, Dale. “In my mind, Belmont High was a magical place. I thought, ‘This is something special – he never got his tassel. This is something I can do.’”
Black wrote to Belmont principal Kristen McGregor, asking if she could send a cap and gown as a present. McGregor responded with an invitation for Chaloukian to participate in the graduation.
The 5:00 p.m. ceremony was held on the field where Chaloukian had played football as a student. The family arrived a couple of hours earlier to pick up the cap and gown and tour the school.
“I was just amazed at how much bigger it had gotten,” marvels Chaloukian, who had been scheduled to appear in a school play with classmate Richard Crenna when he was called up.
At the ceremony, he was escorted to the field by an honor guard of three U.S. Marines, all Belmont alums. “I had to control myself. When they started playing that music [the traditional ‘Pomp and Circumstance March’ by Sir Edward Elgar] and I was walking, I got emotional.”
Chaloukian gave a short speech to his fellow graduates. “He told them, ‘Find what’s in your heart, and never let it go. Don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t achieve your goals,’” Black says. “It was very moving. And he looked so cute in his green cap and gown!”
It was also moving for Chaloukian to be back on the football field of long-ago games. And he could hear his family yelling and cheering from the stands. “My family was thrilled to no end,” he says.
Chaloukian has fond memories of his high school years. “Belmont used to be referred to as the ‘Melting Pot of Los Angeles,’ because there were all different ethnic groups among the students,” he says. “They were my friends. When I got into the industry, I worked with people who were African American, Chinese, Japanese, Latino. It was easy for me to communicate, because I knew their cultures.”
There was a bit of irony to graduation day. When Chaloukian received the folder for his diploma from Principal McGregor, he opened it – and discovered, as is often the case at graduations, that it was empty.
“Where’s my diploma?” he asked.
“I’ll mail it,” McGregor replied.