THOMPSON — Clifford Branstad was a fighter pilot in World War II, graduated from college and became a state legislator — all without graduating from high school.

But on Sunday, the 82-year-old Thompson resident, who left high school during his senior year to join the Army Air Corps, finally will receive his diploma during coffee hour at Bethany Lutheran Church in Thompson.

“It will be different,” said the soft-spoken Branstad.

Branstad attended Thompson High School, but he will receive his diploma from North Iowa High School because Thompson is now part of the North Iowa School District.

Branstad grew up on a farm north of Thompson. He was a junior in high school when the United States entered World War II.

The young people at the time “grew up in a hurry,” he said.

“We had no choice,” said Grace, Clifford’s wife of nearly 60 years, who began training as an Army nurse while she was still in high school. “Everyone had to do something.”

Clifford, the top student in his class, enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1942 after he turned 18. He left school in January 1943 to begin training, first in Missouri and then in a number of other states, including California, Texas, New Mexico and Colorado.

He said he and the other farm boys had an advantage because they had been driving tractors and cars since they were children and knew all about mechanics and engines.

In those days, flying was still “by the seat of your pants,” he said. Today it is more automated.

In 1944, Clifford went to Europe and flew 41 missions over North Africa, Italy and Germany.

After the war, he graduated from the University of Iowa with a degree in economics and sociology.

He then studied pre-law at Georgetown University before going to work as an insurance underwriter in Chicago.

“All of that without a high school diploma,” Grace said. “Times were different.”

Clifford said he took tests everywhere he went because he didn’t have his diploma.

In 1951, the Branstads moved to a farm east of Thompson started by Clifford’s grandfather. Clifford still works on the farm and isn’t in any hurry to retire.

Clifford was elected to the Iowa House as a Republican in 1978. As he entered the House, his second cousin once removed, Terry Branstad, was leaving it to become lieutenant governor.

 Clifford would serve in the House for the next 18 years before stepping down.

He also has been active in Farm Bureau and other organizations, including the Thompson School Board where he served as president.

North Iowa Superintendent Larry Hill was the one who started the ball rolling on giving Clifford his diploma.

“Larry just decided it was time to do it,” Grace said.

Hill hopes other World War II veterans who left school early will be encouraged to come forward so they can receive their diplomas as well.

“It’s a way for us to tell them thank you,” he said.

Reach Mary Pieper at 421-0578 or mary.pieper@globegazette.com