SWEET HOME — Small candy bars are often advertised as “fun-sized.”
Thursday and Friday, some 160 Sweet Home High School seniors were greeted by faculty advisers Steve Thorpe and Dan Tow, heard a speech by Principal Ralph Brown, were presented with their diplomas, moved the tassels on their decorated mortarboards from right to left and tossed them into the air.
It happens every spring at thousands of high schools across the country.
But this year — unlike any other in the school’s long history — there were only seven graduates marching into the gym at a time, where they were welcomed by two guests each.
Their ceremony was “fun-sized” to comply with social distancing rules enacted by Gov. Kate Brown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Ceremonies were held every 30 minutes from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. in the high school gym.
“As soon as we heard about all of the rules coming down, we were determined to make this a celebration these young men and women will never forget,” Thorpe said. “We went to work. You never get anything done sitting on your hands.”
Thorpe said a virtual baccalaureate was held online Wednesday night with champion wrestler, MMA fighter and actor Randy Couture as guest speaker.
Earlier, world champion wrestler Bruce Baumgartner talked to SHHS senior athletes during a virtual senior awards ceremony.
“We just have to find a way,” Thorpe said. “You can’t wait for things to come to you.”
The year’s ceremony was also special for both Thorpe and Tow because their sons, Travis and Casey, are class members.
Thorpe told the graduates, “You are part of something incredible. No other school is doing this in a time when things certainly aren’t normal.”
Thorpe praised the graduates for their “confidence, resilience and dedication.”
“You are the first class to graduate during a pandemic, and we hope you are the last,” Tow told the graduates.
Principal Brown reminded the graduates that, as freshmen, he asked them to set three goals: to succeed academically to the best of their ability, to “not die” and to graduate.
“You have succeeded,” Brown said.
Brown said he was reared by a single mother in “the projects.”
“I enlisted in the Army after high school with a goal of working in construction or as a prison guard,” Brown said. “I never dreamed of becoming a teacher or a high school principal.”
Brown encouraged the graduates to keep their options open on their new journey in life.
“You don’t know now where you are going to be in years to come,” he said. “Set your sights on something positive, and you will do great.”
Brown said school closures that started several months ago greatly changed one of the most enjoyable parts of his job: dropping into classrooms to talk with teachers and visiting with students in school hallways.
“Even if I didn’t remember your name and called you Buddy, I want all of you to know I am extremely proud of you,” Brown said.
It is a tradition at SHHS that graduates present their principal with a token gift as they receive their diplomas. Last year, the gifts were rubber balls.
This year, graduates gave Brown coronavirus face masks.
“What a great idea! I love it,” Brown said.
Casey Tow is one of six class valedictorians and will compete in track and field at the U.S. Naval Academy.
“I love our community,” Tow told his classmates. “We need to learn not only from our peers, but also from those who have come before us. They have faced life experiences that we will also face.”
Tow and classmate Megan Hager were named Boy and Girl of the Year and shared valedictorian honors with Victoria Hawken, Nicholaus James, Pippi Somatis and Brook Womack.
Salutatorian is Tristan Saultz.
Members of the class will receive about $1.3 million in scholarships.
Hannah Powell wore a lei made of dollar bills and candy bars and a decorated mortarboard that read, “I’m on to the next chapter.”
“It’s awesome,” Powell said. “At least I get to graduate with a couple of my friends. We are clearly making the best of what we have.”
Powell plans to work as a certified nursing assistant and attend nursing school.
“I enjoyed high school, especially sports,” she said.
Classmate Jessica Davenport said the ceremony — which ended appropriately with the song "Celebrate" — was indeed fun.
“A while ago this would have seemed strange, but not now,” she said.
Davenport plans to become a surgical technician.
Other participants in the 10 a.m. graduation ceremony were Adria Ingram, Zachary Luttmer, Allison Miner and Ashtyn Walker.
Perhaps the class board had a premonition about things to come when they selected their class motto months ago: “It’s a great day to have a great day.”
The celebration for the Class of 2020 will continue with a parade — a processional, Thorpe calls it — down Long Street at 7 p.m. Friday.
Graduates will also receive a video of all commencement ceremonies, plus a compilation of brief videos about themselves.
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