Tom Canchola with his diploma.

Tom Canchola is a proud member of the Evanston Township High School Class of 1987. There’s no doubt. He finished all of his classes, completed all of the requirements and walked in the graduation ceremony.

But Tom was missing one thing — his diploma. Graduates were given a blank folder during the ceremony and were supposed to come back later in the week to pick up the real thing.

“But me being a teenager,” Tom explains, “I never did.”

Tom had moved to Evanston in 1985 to live with his four older brothers and attend ETHS. The boys’ parents remained in their native Mexico and did not attend Tom’s graduation.

Neither did his brothers, described by Tom as “blue collar guys” who did not want to miss work that day.

Tom later married and moved to Houston, where he owns a successful computer business. Framed high school diplomas and college degrees from Tom’s three children would keep going up on a picture wall in their house, but nothing from Tom.

Tom says his wife, Maria Teresa, would always tease him. “How come you don’t have it?” she’d ask jokingly.

The Cancholas are a large Evanston family. Back in 1987, when Tom was an ETHS senior, his niece Aracely Canchola was nine years old.

Today, Aracely is the department chair for Student Services at ETHS. She had learned about Tom’s diploma, or rather, about Tom’s lack of a diploma, and vowed to do something about it.

“I was ready to pay for a replica,” Aracely says. But a replica would not have the signatures of school officials from Tom’s 1987 graduation year.

So Aracely went for a long shot. She contacted the registrar’s office at ETHS, on the wild chance that Tom’s diploma might still be sitting in a file cabinet at the school.

The first answer, Aracely says, was “no, we looked.” But one of Tom’s sisters (I told you it was a big family) told Aracely “try again.”

Aracely says the registrar told her “let me check one more place.” And then, “Oh my God! That’s it.” The original diploma, still in its original envelope.

The diploma — found at last!

At this point, Tom had no idea what his niece was up to and knew nothing of the diploma’s discovery. But Aracely had a plan.

Tom was in Evanston this week for a visit, and for a reason Tom could not figure out, one of his sons insisted on seeing Tom’s alma mater, ETHS, on Monday. It was a setup.

When Tom got to the school, more than 20 members of his big family were there, with big ’87 balloons.

Canchola’s family, including is niece Aracely, who’s wearing the “Evanston” T-shirt.

Tom figured this was the graduation party he never had, “but it never crossed my mind” that the diploma would be the centerpiece of the festivities.

“But then,” Tom says, “my niece Aracely approached me with the actual high school diploma. The actual original one!”

“He really wanted it,” Aracely says. “I’m glad we were able to do this for him.”

“I was very moved,” Tom says. “I was not expecting it.”

So now, 34 years later, what is Tom going to do with his diploma?

“I’m going to put it in a frame,” he says proudly, “and put it on my picture wall at home.”

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.