Story by Lisa Rice
It was a nail-biter to the very end for the Warwick Valley High School Class of 2017 as inclement weather forecasts threatened their long anticipated walk onto the C. Ashley Morgan Field for graduation.
With storms looming throughout the county and word of neighboring district ceremonies moving indoors the night before, tensions ran high for seniors and their families waiting for word from the Warwick School District as to whether commencement exercises would be held, as is tradition, outdoors, or indoors with limited admission.
Moment by moment, the skies cleared and just after 8:30 a.m., with just 90 minutes until the step off, word spread fast that Mother Nature heard their prayers: The Warwick Valley Class of 2017 would graduate outside.
Some might say that either way, you still graduate and you’re with your friends and family, so what’s the big deal? For Wildcats, it is a big deal. With 354 graduating seniors, indoor tickets were limited to three in the gym and two for the auditorium where the ceremony would be streamed live.
For many that would mean siblings, grandparents, stepparents, aunts, uncles and cousins would have to miss the live ceremony. Previous graduates and underclassmen would be left out. And there wouldn’t be enough room to be handed a diploma by the faculty member that most impacted the student’s educational experience. For this class in particular, a rained out ceremony would have been especially hard to swallow following rained out eighth grade and freshman formals and a junior prom in a drizzle.
Graduating Under Sunny Skies
But promptly at 10 a.m., with the sun shining down brightly and blue skies above, the Warwick Valley High School band played “Pomp and Circumstance” as High School Principal Dr. Larry “Doc Wash” Washington led faculty, administration, distinguished guests, and the senior class around the high school track to centerfield, where they would go from students to alumni in just over two hours.
Following the singing of “The Star Spangled Banner” by the Meistersingers, Washington acknowledged the honored guests and asked the teachers and guidance counselors to stand up and be thanked. He said that leadership is the word he would use to describe this class.
“As John Quincy Adams stated, ‘If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader,’” said Dr. Larry Washington.
He then spoke of how the seniors filled the fall Homecoming pep rally with school spirit, despite having class color day replaced by school color day.
“It was an inspirational moment,” said Washington, who concluded by telling his students, “You will always be part of the Warwick Valley school family.”
History Influences Who We Are
The first student address was given by Salutatorian Thomas Nafash, who will be attending Stevens Institute this fall.
“As we move forward, it is crucial for us to remember the moments that have shaped us into the young adults we are today,” said Nafash. “As a singular moment, high school is a blip on the radar of our entire lives. However, that blip contains hundreds of memories and relationships that influence who we are today.”
“We all have tremendous potential to do fantastic things for our communities, country, even the world,” Nafash continued. “The only person that we can rely on to push us to fulfill our potential is ourselves. That is why I would like to challenge you to challenge yourselves. Buzz Aldrin once said, ‘Shoot for the moon, you just might get there.’ I don’t know if we will have any astronauts in our class, but that doesn’t mean we all can’t shoot for our own moon,”
Nafash was followed by Board of Education President Lynn Lillian, who said, “As we watched you grow up it’s been a singular thrill of the qualities that we saw early in each of you.”
She further commented on the impressive responsibilities taken on by this class including volunteer work, classes, teams, and jobs.
Lillian said, “You have chosen right over easy when it has mattered most. There is truth in the saying that living in a small town is like living in a family of uncongenial relations. Sometimes it’s fun, and sometimes it’s perfectly awful, but it’s always good for you.”
Reflect on Where You Come From
Valedictorian Jennie Prial was next to address her classmates. Prial, who is a member of Leadership Academy, National Honor Society and Mu Alpha Theta, will attend Xavier University this fall.
“In his legendary speech less than a month before he died, college basketball coach Jim Valvano said that what is important in life is to always reflect on where you came from, where you are and where you want to be,” said Prial.
She continued, “Pierre Tielar de Chardo, a 19th century scientist and theologist, was the first to use the term ‘missio,’ the latin root for the word mission, as its own entity. Each person, he explained, has their own unique missio, a role, purpose, or task that they, and only they, are capable of fulfilling with their life.”
“When Jim Valvano encouraged us to always reflect on where you came from, where you are, and where you want to be, he did so with the clarity of someone who would soon pass away,” concluded Prial. “He did so knowing that he had little time left. Don’t wait until your time is limited to live, pursing your passion, fulfilling your unique missio. So I encourage you all, Class of 2017: Treasure Warwick, where we came from. Embrace this moment, where we are now. And look forward to where we are going.”
Mika Leonard was the next student to take to the podium, selected as the 2017 senior speaker. Leonard will be going to University of Rochester.
“Today is the day our lives as young adults truly begin,” said Leonard. “Today we leave the halls where we have spent the last four years and venture out into a new beginning, whether it be in college, the workforce, or the military. We may be growing up, but remember that it’s OK to act like a kid sometimes. Keep that childhood innocence with you and always remember to have fun in all that you do. No matter how far you go, I hope the smell of apples, onions, and manure will always stay with you.”
Happy Birthday Doc Wash
Superintendent of Schools Dr. David Leach began his comments by divulging a secret: it was Dr. Washington’s birthday. Moments later the entire senior class as well as onlookers sang a rousing impromptu version of “Happy Birthday” to their beloved principal.
Dr. Leach gave several pointers to the seniors to discover what their core values are – be driven by your passion; failure is an important part of life; diversity is a great resource; make your own opportunities; and, be humble.
Don’t Fall Back, Fall Forward
Class President Brogan Dineen started off by asking everyone to raise their hands if they ever struggled in an academic class, didn’t pass their road test the first time, did not do as well as anticipated in a big game, or if you weren’t accepted to your first choice college, only to fall in love with another.
“Well, failure may be defined as a ‘lack of success,’ but look at where you are today, sitting at your high school graduation,” said Dineen. “That seems pretty successful to me. In spite of all those tough days, you made it.”
Dineen continued, “If we are going to fall, and fall we will, don’t fall back ever. Fall forward, towards your goals, towards that ‘moon’ we’re all supposed to be shooting for. That way it is not your failure staring you in the face, but your bright future just ahead.”
World War II Veteran Receives Diploma
It was time for the awarding of diplomas for a historic class. These 354 students would be the last students to graduate high school that were born in the 20th century and yet the first to receive his diploma has waited 73 years for it.
“Our first graduate attended Warwick Valley High School as a proud member of 35 students of the Class of 1945,” said Athletic Director Greg Sirico.
John “Rocco” Garcia left school to serve his country during World War II. When he returned, he went to work and started a family. That family has given back to the Warwick School District in the form of amazing athletes, scholarships and teachers. Before the first of the 354 seniors accepted diplomas, Garcia was presented, finally, with his. Among his fellow recipients was his grandson and namesake, Rocco Garcia.
It took over an hour, but each graduate walked to their requested presenter, shook hands, accepted their diploma, and received a big hug. Then they each processed down a line where they were congratulated by members of the Board of Education, Administrators from the Warwick Valley Central School District and Greenwood Lake School District and local officials from the Village of Greenwood Lake, the Village of Warwick and the Town of Warwick.
When the last graduate, Grace Zimmerman, who will attend the College of New Jersey, had her diploma in hand, it was caps in the air and off to new horizons for the Class of 2017. They will surely continue to make history.