Packet Sea Foam: 68 years later, WWII vet earns honorary degree

June 20, 2011 

Dr. C. Burns Roehrig of The Cypress on Hilton Head Island waited 68 years to get his college degree, something that fell by the wayside when he dropped everything to serve his country in World War II.

Thanks to Chuck Duval of Hilton Head for alerting us to this special honor for his friend.

Roehrig would have graduated from Amherst College in Massachusetts had not World War II intervened. On May 22, at its 190th commencement exercises, Amherst awarded honorary bachelor's degrees to four former students who left the college to serve their country in the military.

All four men experienced great success in life. But a daughter-in-law of one man, who earned an MBA from Harvard Business School, alerted Amherst that he still felt an empty spot without his degree from Amherst. She asked if a degree, or honorary degree, was possible.

"The idea immediately found enthusiastic support on campus, and President Anthony W. Marx inquired as to whether there were other former students still living who, despite their departure from Amherst to serve in World War II, had still earned enough undergraduate credits to go on to earn graduate degrees," according to a college news release.

"Everyone agreed that we should do the right thing and honor these Amherst men who gave great national service," Marx said.

He sent an invitation to each honoree stating: "We seek to recognize your selfless service to our country, as well as the substantive coursework you completed during your time at the college. You offered up your talents, your youth and your very life to preserve our freedoms, at the ultimate cost of an important building block for your future prosperity and professional development -- a college degree."

The college helped spread the story of the islander who was honored in absentia at the commencement exercises. It says:

Dr. Roehrig, originally from Brookline, Mass., followed in the footsteps of his father and two of his three older brothers when he enrolled at Amherst College in 1941.

The chemistry major left the college in 1943 to enlist in the U.S. Army Air Corps. From there, he was sent to finish his undergraduate studies at The Citadel and Vanderbilt University and then to the medical school at the University of Maryland.

After World War II, Dr. Roehrig completed his clinical training in Boston and postgraduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

As a flight surgeon and captain in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War, he was stationed at Elmendorf Air Force Base but served military members and civilians throughout Alaska.

He met his future wife, nurse Patricia Orme, while delivering a baby at the Rest Camp at Mt. McKinley National Park. After their marriage in 1952, the couple settled in Wellesley, Mass., and Dr. Roehrig practiced internal medicine, specializing in diabetes, at the New England Deaconess Hospital and the New England Baptist Hospital until 1991.

Among many leadership roles, he was president of the American Society of Internal Medicine in 1984 and 1985 and editor of Today's Internist magazine from 1987 to 1999. He was elected a Master of the American College of Physicians in 2005.

He retired from medicine in 1996 and moved to Hilton Head. Widowed since 2002, the 88-year-old Dr. Roehrig has three children and five grandchildren, and his son-in-law and two nephews are Amherst graduates.

"We all appreciate that Amherst is recognizing our dad in this way," wrote Roehrig's daughter Jennifer Munn on behalf of Roehrig's children. "He has always felt the absence of a diploma from Amherst, and this degree means a great deal to him."

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