By Stephen Smoot
Graduation Day 2023 opened on a perfectly warm spring day. Parents, family, friends, teachers, and staff filled the gym quietly, but happily. Younger family members excitedly joined their families, perhaps dreaming of their turn to wear the Carolina or navy blue robes to ascend the stage and receive their diplomas.
The gymnasium is the center of school social life, and as such is an appropriate venue for graduation. Some graduates represented their school in athletic competition on that very floor. Others cheered from the stands. All of these students invested hard work and time for their degrees. Some established a legacy. All should be proud.
Graduation opened with a prayer and stating “thank you for the friends we’ve made and all our classmates.” Timothy Johnson, principal of Pendleton County Middle/High School followed with an admonition to “thank teachers, staff, and the board of education for all that they’ve done.” Then Johnson shared his appreciation for the “group with the highest level of responsibility” for the successes of the class, the parents and guardians who cared for the students.
Johnson went on, saying, “We’ve created exceptional moments.” He mentioned the challenges that COVID laid in front of this class, then spoke of his pride in the students “working together regardless of obstacles put in our way.”
The last words of his talk spoke to the joy of a life well lived. Johnson advised “Life is like a Harley. Get on. Hang on. Enjoy the ride.”
Unique in the history of county graduations, this year’s graduation coincided with the West Virginia state track championships. Riley Apple, salutatorian, and Gage Sites-Woods qualified for the state track championships, but had to miss graduation. Dave Eason, athletic director, accompanied the two seniors to Charleston to participate in a ceremony there.
Eason said “Between 12 and 1 p.m. there was a break in the events. Unfortunately, that is when the rain started.” Officials invited Eason, Apple, and Sites-Woods to the infield where they played the National Anthem. Eason presented diplomas, then the announcer read information about each graduate.
Apple recorded a video to be played in lieu of her speech at graduation. She said, “I’m proud to represent Pendleton County one last time.” Apple then stated that “there are many more memories and accomplishments to be made,” through the power of “yet.” In her talk, the word “yet” represents the potential of each student to achieve their dreams. “Even if you have not made it ‘yet,’ if you believe in its power and work towards your goals, success is possible,” she said.
Rowan Witt, who earned the title of valedictorian, described her experience at the high school as “kind, determined, resourceful.” She shared her personal stories of struggling to find her way as a freshman. When COVID struck and transformed school radically, “we didn’t let COVID dampen our spirits” or “define us.”
Sonny O’Neil, member of the Pendleton County Board of Education, then rose to deliver the keynote address. He described his time working in the region for Hinkle Trucking and other firms, then his experience officiating high school sports.
O’Neil shared three important life lessons that graduates should carry forward into their adult lives. First, he said all should be “learning to give” and focused on volunteering as vital. No one can save the world on their own, but “volunteering allows you to choose where and how to make a difference.”
Next, he discussed accountability. He explained that “taking responsibility empowers you.” Those who always try to shift blame also end up shifting credibility away from themselves. They will always live in the shadow of those unafraid to accept responsibility.
Finally, O’Neil urged that “if you can be anything in this world, be kind,” and advised graduates to appreciate the wisdom of the Preacher in Ecclesiastes, who said “there is a time for every season and every purpose under heaven.”
Next came the always heart-warming tradition of the senior slide show. Each student provided a current picture, along with photos of their choice. These included baby pictures, school memories, fun times at home, or extracurricular activities such as athletics, FFA, and more.
Each student then took a place in line to hear their name and receive their diploma. When seated again, degrees in hand, they got permission to move their tassel, signifying the closing of one chapter in life and the opening to the rest of the book.
Principal Johnson shared his final thoughts with the class, saying, “You are ready, willing, and more than able.”
As the ceremony closed, the graduates filed back out of the gym, carrying their diploma and a sunflower into another beautiful Pendleton County May morning and the rest of their lives.
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