At Monday night's commencement exercises, 41 eaglets officially left the nest that is Paonia High School. During their four years, the class of 2018 collectively had higher than average SAT scores, participated in all-state choir and band, broke sports records, won numerous titles, built and installed a solar energy system, and won the hearts of their community. During their four years, Newsweek Magazine ranked their school among the nation's top 500 for low income students two years in a row.
Co-salutatorians McKenna Palmer, Helene Sharer-Menely and Kassidy Rapki spoke of family and community and leaving the comfort of PHS and their homes. Echoing the words of principal Randal Palmer, Rapke, who plans to study nursing science and become a flight nurse, urged fellow students to "Look around you. Take a moment to look around at this gym at the faces of those who supported them ... A huge part of our lives is ending.
"And to everyone who came here today for this class," she told the audience, "you are the reason for our success along the way."
The class was awarded a combined $1,068,250 in scholarships, among them, numerous local and regional scholarships, two Daniels Fund scholarships and two Naval Academy appointments. Before taking off for college, trade school, or to work on their family fruit farm, graduates will spend the summer working, exploring their home state and the world, and enjoying time with friends and family. They will compete in rodeo, work for a local ditch company, be lifeguards, and play sports.
Their goals include becoming EMTs and earning degrees in computer sciences and engineering, music, psychology, equine sciences, nursing, architecture, health technologies, and physics. They will study taxidermy, blacksmithing, auto diesel mechanics and welding.
Daniels Scholar Slater Podgorny will attend Denver University but hasn't decided what he wants to be.
Clay Campbell, whose North Fork Valley family roots run generations deep, will join the Texas National Guard and earn a science degree; Justin Johnson will join the Army National Guard at Fort Benning, Ga.; Dominic Limone plans to become a U.S. Marine Corps combat engineer, and study psychiatry, and one day help veterans to overcome PTSD.
Co-Valedictorians Cyrus Malek-Madani an Caden Meilner were among 1,200 applicants nationwide who were accepted to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md. Both spoke of family and community. Malek-Madani said he moved to Paonia in seventh grade and uncertain about whether he could make new friends. To his surprise he discovered "an exceptional community."
"This community has accepted me with open arms and introduced me to world that I didn't even know I was searching for," said Malek-Madani. "Though we come from a town and community of only 1,400 people, we have prepared each other to be larger than life."
Meilner, whose goal is to become a Naval aviator, shared a story of a small-town first-grade teacher whose students completed well-known proverbs with the following: Never underestimate the power of ... termites. A penny saved is... not much. When the blind lead the blind... get out of the way.
"Like the answers, their memories of PHS will not soon be forgotten," said Meilner.
Through superlatives, accolades and sports analogies, commencement speaker Johnna Martin praised the class on its high grade point averages and "stellar performances both on and off the stage, the floor, the track, the mat and the court. This graduating class is a credit to their families, this school and this community... This class has exceptional character, leadership and commitment."
In introducing her, teacher and coach and PHS alumna Kriss Allen said Martin was the graduates' obvious choice for speaker. "The love and admiration for her is deep in this class," said Allen. Martin "embodies every quality that has made PHS and the community so incredible."
A 1979 Paonia graduate and star athlete at PHS, she studied criminal justice and served in law enforcement, including as sergeant of the Paonia Police Department, before returning to PHS in 2000. Last winter she was injured in an ATV injury and is a paraplegic. She gave her speech from a wheelchair, urging students to never give up, dig deep through discouragement and failure, and envision what they want their lives to be. "You don't have to be a superhero or have super-human gifts for your visions to turn into reality," she said.
She spoke of basketball legend Michael Jordan, who didn't make the varsity team his freshman year; of distance runner Glenn Cunningham, who overcame badly-burned legs as a child to become one of the greatest distance runners of all time; and of world-renowned horse trainer Monty Roberts, whose teacher gave him an "F" on a paper about his dream of building a big horse ranch, reminding him that he comes from a poor family. Years later that same teacher took his students to Roberts' ranch and encouraged them to dream big.
She talked about the PHS mascot, "...one of the most powerful birds in the world. They use keen eyesight and vision to spot prey several hundred yards away. Before striking, they scan for competition.
"So, how do you see yourself in one year? Four years, 10 years, 20 years?" she asked. "Whatever your vision is, you have to keep that vision in front of you at all times." Remember the eagle, she said. "Once he spots his prey, he fearlessly strikes...You have to press on and trust past any frustration, any failures, any barrier."
While awards were presented prior to graduation, three special awards are presented annually at graduation. Slater Podgorny and Brooke Hillman received the Robert F. Rockwell Cup. Now in its 108th year, the Rockwell Cup honors the outstanding senior girl and boy as selected by the student body based on character, leadership, scholastic ability and volunteer service. "Many consider it the highest achievement that a Paonia High School student can receive," said assistant principal Karla Head in presenting the awards.
Derek Holt received of the Denise Kossler Fine Arts Award. Holt has participated in music and in theatrical productions throughout his four years at PHS.
The P-Blanket award for outstanding male and female athlete went to McKenna Palmer and Jaden Miller. Both are multi-sport, four-year letterers and garnered numerous awards.
Principal Palmer used exponentials to illustrate just how deeply this class has touched the community. He asked graduates Enoch Kropp and Kaitlyn Wist to bring to the stage a person who has impacted their lives, and for those persons to bring someone to the stage who has impacted their lives, until 32 people -- family members, coaches, church leaders and others -- stood before the audience. "Let's recognize the class of 2018 and their impact on society," said Palmer.
Palmer also recognized two special "graduates," kitchen manager Lori Miller, who has overseen the service of an estimated 974,000 meals in her 29 years of service. "We'll call you chef, because you have taken Spam and turned it into prime rib many times"; and Steve Swartzendruber, a long-time sports coach who will end his career this weekend at the state baseball championships.
Kassidy Rapke urged graduates to hold onto this moment. "To my class, when you walk out of these doors as an Eagle for the last time today, really listen to the click of the door you've taken in," said Rapke. When you pack up your belongings and begin the journey this fall, take one last drive through the main street, taking in the mountains, the school, the mountains and the football field, and the people who've made this their home, and embrace it."