The setting was a school parking lot, the stage was makeshift, and masks and social distancing abounded. And yet the 140th Wauseon High School commencement ceremony held for the Class of 2020 last Sunday remained surprisingly traditional.
Led by WHS Principal Keith Leatherman in the shared elementary and middle school parking lots, the graduation program proceeded smoothly under sunny skies and included typical commencement activities in the agenda, including playing a recording of “Pomp and Circumstances.” Still, major changes dictated by the coronavirus pandemic were evident: the outdoor setting, the health restrictions, and honking car horns that replaced the applause of the graduates and audience members confined to their vehicles to honor social distancing rules.
Leatherman began the ceremony by saying, tongue-in-cheek, “Under normal, circumstances, at this time, I would ask that you please take a moment to turn your cell phones off or put them on vibrate. I’m not quite so worried about that today.”
Noting the changes in this year’s commencement ceremony, he said, “What I want you to remember today, more than anything, is that our current circumstances do not change the significance of this event and the honor that you have earned as a graduate of Wauseon High School. Your hard work over the past 13 years has led to this moment, and nothing can take that away from your accomplishments.”
Megan Carroll, senior class president, took the stage for an opening address that included thanks to school administrators for making a graduation ceremony possible. “We truly wouldn’t be here without all of you,” she said.
Mentioning the unusual state of the end of senior year, Megan said she and her class members still have many memories of their final school year. “The current pandemic is just another one of those memories,” she said. “It’s just another thing that our class has endured, only to come out stronger.”
Megan closed her comments with a tribute to Thane Wooley. The seniors’ classmate died March 29, 2016, at age 14 after a decade-long fight with cancer. The class also dedicated its gift to the school district to Thane.
“Though he is not with us in person I believe he is still with us in spirit,” Megan said.
The ceremony continued with Board of Education President Sandra Griggs announcing the senior class valedictorians, Kelcy Blanchong, James Hutchinson, Brandon Michael, Marah Patterson, Garrett Puehler, Maggie Roelfsema, and Sydney Zirkle. Leatherman followed by announcing those students as Class of 2020 inductees into the WHS Academic Hall, an honor given annually to seniors earning positions in the top 5% of their class.
Superintendent Troy Armstrong encouraged all of the seniors to follow the paths they have established. “And know that this path will have bumps and curves you must navigate. These obstacles will make you stronger and, ultimately, lead you to success,” he said.
Armstrong told the students to trust in and use the skills they learned at school, “and no matter where you go make the world a better place.”
Valedictorian Kelcy Blanchong, a National Honor Society member and scholar athlete, noted the class’s reputation as troublemakers, but reminded classmates that their elementary school principal was the first to see the creativity within the students’ shenanigans.
“Which is important, because that little glimpse of creativity has continued to shine through these past four years of high school,” she said. Regardless of what school activities her fellow students participated in, “all of you should be proud of what you have accomplished and what you leave behind,” Kelcy said.
She added that class members have earned prestigious titles. “This is evidence that when we find a passion or a goal to strive for, you bet we will accomplish that said goal,” she said. “Our free spirit, combined with creativity and determination, fuels our fire to diminish any obstacle that stands in our way.”
After mentioning that COVID-19 restrictions stole away some traditional senior class activities, Kelcy countered, “I wouldn’t change this senior year for anything, because, as always, and maybe even most importantly, we are leaving in style.”
A second student speaker, Gregory Moore III, told class members, that despite the adversity caused by the coronavirus, “We have prevailed.”
Praising the class for overcoming obstacles, he said, “None of this has come easy, and none of this has come by accident. We are here because we worked for it.”
Gregory told his classmates their future success won’t be easy. “In fact, you may have doubts, and you may get scared, and sometimes you may fall,” he said. “But use that strength to get back up and just run with it, no matter what people say…Just remember that you are you, and that you have your own path, your own obstacles, and, lastly, your own success…Keep in mind that people are successful and happy doing exactly what they wanted, college degree or no college degree.”
Prior to presenting the students to receive their dipl0mas, Leatherman listed some of the class’s accomplishments: four speech state qualifiers and one speech national qualifier; seniors among band and choir members who earned superior state ratings; high level FFA activities; part of 12 team NWOAL league championships, two state runner-up finishes, and a wrestling team duals state championship; multiple individual state qualifiers and placers in sports; and 46 honor students, six earning an ACT score of 30 or higher, two earning a perfect score of 36 in the reading and science portions, and two earning a score of 35 in English, math, and reading.
Leatherman also announced that 75% percent of class members have been accepted into post-secondary school programs and four will enter the military. He said class members were offered local scholarships totaling $65,000 and over $342,000 in other scholarships for the first year of college. He said the class has the potential to accept $1,372,000 in scholarship money over four years of college.
The principal said the Class of 2020 is impressive for “the incredible grit and resilience that they have shown during the last 2 1/2 months. When faced with circumstances we could not even begin to predict, and certainly have never experienced before, these young people not only adapted, they flourished (and) exemplified positivity, which has been a character trait all through high school, and leadership and class unity.”
Reach David J. Coehrs at 419-335-2010.