Keith Tolley, right, shakes the hand of Unicoi County Board of Education Chairman Tyler Engle after Tolley received his diploma during Unicoi County High School’s graduation on May 20. Tolley was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1969 and served in Vietnam, which kept him from receiving his diploma. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Richard Rourk)

By Richard Rourk

Approximately 200 Unicoi County High School Students reached a milestone on May 20 as the class of 2019 walked across the stage at UCHS to receive their diplomas.

Each graduate’s road to the milestone is unique. That was especially true for one man as 50 years after he left UCHS, Erwin native Keith Tolley finally received his diploma.

Tolley had just finished his junior year of high school and started working his summer job in construction, when he went home for lunch on July 15, of 1969.

“I was helping build the middle school, I went home for lunch and I noticed that I had gotten my draft letter,” Tolley said. “I went back and told my foreman that I had got drafted, and the foreman said when you get back you will always have a job here.”

As his son Jerrod Tolley has said: “Most people got handed a diploma. My father got handed an M16.”

Tolley was drafted to the Army, and was sent to Alabama for his Advanced Individual Training and then moved onto Fort Gordon, Georgia, for more training.

“After I left Georgia, I came home for a week, and then I was sent to Oakland, California,” Tolley said. “I had five and a half weeks training and they sent me to Vietnam.”

While in Vietnam, Tolley fought in Laos and Cambodia.

“It was pretty bad,” Tolley said. “I walked point for 18 months until I got wounded.”

By walking point, Tolley was the most exposed in his company.

“We were fighting, and a mortar blew up right in front of me,” Tolley said.

Tolley still has fragments in his head from the explosion. Tolley then was sent to Japan and then back to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, in Washington, D.C., for a year of surgeries including a plate being placed in his head.

“The only thing that bothers me is headaches,” Tolley said.

Tolley could have been put on full disability when he returned home but decided to work.

“When I got back I worked in construction,” Tolley said. “I’m going to work as long as I can.” Tolley worked until 1991, before accepting his benefits. During his construction days, Tolley helped erect the Mall at Johnson City.

Although he had accomplished and sacrificed more than most, Tolley always sought his diploma that he missed out on. Tolley’s wife, Linda Tolley, began working with Unicoi County Director of Schools John English and Unicoi County School Board representative Lisa Saylor to push for the state to give Tolley the diploma he had earned.

“Bill Lee signed off on it, and it finally came through at the first of May,” Tolley said.

English suggested, and Tolley agreed, to walk across the stage with the graduating UCHS class of 2019.

Tolley was very touched by the show of support and is honored to receive his diploma.

“I’ve got medals from service, but that diploma outranks all of those,” Tolley said. “There were more than 3,000 people there.”

Tolley received a standing ovation as he was called up first.

Tolley had some advice for those that may be struggling with school.

“Even though it is hard to do, you can do anything you put your mind to,” Tolley said. “Stay in school; you may not see it, but that diploma is something you need in life.”

English was honored to work with the Tolley family.

“It was an absolute honor and privilege to be able to recognize and honor Mr. Tolley,” English said. “What a story. There was so much admiration and respect for Mr. Tolley and rightfully so.”

Tolley stays busy these days spending time with family and still attending veteran events.

“I got to go on the Honor Flight to Washington this year and I plan on going back next year,” Tolley said.

Tolley also attended Unicoi County’s Memorial Day Observance on Sunday, May 26.