NEW BUFFALO — The long road to graduation for New Buffalo High School’s Class of 2020 reached its destination on Friday, July 24, right outside the building where students attended classes until March 13.

The Commencement Ceremony culminated with mortarboards and fireworks filling the sky ahead of a celebratory parade through town.

“Commencement is a time for closure and validation,” said NBHS Principal Wayne Butler. “Closure took a little bit longer to get here this year. Seniors, we sure have waited a long time for this.”

He said this year’s graduates share a common experience as members of the New Buffalo High School Class of 2020 — “virtually the best class ever.”

“This has been an unforgettable journey that has prepared you for the future, whatever that may hold,” Butler said. “Our seniors collectively weave an intricate web, they touch on many diverse interests and talents. Thank you to all parents, family members and friends for your love and constant support (at which point he gave seniors a tip that this would be a good time to thank their parents).”

While recounting their “not-so-long senior year,” Michael Comer and Leigha Vinson said the class started out the third trimester on a high note.

“We were almost there, just three more months to go, everything was becoming real. We were trying on our caps and gowns for the first time and realizing where we were going to start our next chapter.” Comer said.

But Vinson noted that starting on March 13, 2020. “we were all living in a real-time history lesson.”

Initially they were told there would be no school for two weeks because of COVID-19.

“We were all jumping for joy until the reality of it hit us right in the face,” she said.

Comer said it wasn’t long before members of the Class of 2020 were told the rest of their senior year was going to be cut short.

“We realized that we weren’t going to have sports teams anymore. we weren’t going to have a prom, and we weren’t going to finish our year with the people we grew up with. It was a pill none of us really knew how to swallow.”

Vinson said finishing classes online was a huge struggle for many, but Comer pointed out “with the help and patience of our amazing staff and teachers we are sitting here today. We may still all be six-feet apart, but nonetheless, we are here. So to the outstanding Class of 2020” — (both Comer and Vinson exclaimed) “congratulations!”

The New Buffalo High School Commencement Ceremony included the presentation of a special diploma to Thomas Carlson (a resident of Hillsborough, Virginia, who still visits New Buffalo every year).

Butler said Carlson left New Buffalo High School one week before graduation in 1950 to join the United States Air Force (he went on to serve for 20 years) and was joined at the July 24 ceremony by his wife, three daughters, three granddaughters, and nephew Keith Carlson who is “one of our own here at the school.”

“Seniors … you have been reminded in the last several months life has a way of changing. Mr. Carlson’s life plans were greatly altered by the Korean War in 1950,” Butler said.

After receiving the diploma from Superintendent Dr. Jeff Leslie (while the U.S. Air Force theme played), Carlson told this year’s graduates their families “are part of your soul and they will be with you forever.”

“They will be proud of your achievements, they’ll love you work … ethics and your achievements in life,” he said.

Thomas said family will be there when you run into problems “because they love you, and that’s what families do.”

He also gave members of the Class of 2020 the following advice if they encounter problems that seem insurmountable — “Pick yourself up, brush yourself off, and get back in the game.”

The tradition of the senior and junior class presidents having the incoming senior class tie their colors to a “totem pole” dating to the 1950s was continued by Class of 2020 Student Senate Co-Presidents Grace Gradowski and Jacob Fidler and current Junior Class Co-Presidents Abigail Vitale and Cole Haskins.

Gradowski said she said the following last year and was saying it again this year as a senior and graduate — “Every ending is also a beginning.”

“For our Class of 2020 today is the beginning of the next phase of our lives. For the Class of 2021 you are beginning the end of your high school journey as you start your senior year.”

She called the final year of high school “a time for making memories and enjoying every moment knowing that you are experiencing things for the last time.”

Gradowski said she knows the Class of 2021 will take advantage of their senior year because they know things can change in the blink of an eye.

Fidler urged those involved in the Student Senate going forward to grow and make an impact on the school, the community and the world.

“Remember that in any situation you have to get involved in order to make your voice heard and make change happen.”

Vitale aid the senior class “has handled adversity beautifully.”

“You have persevered through these difficult times of loneliness and fear,” after having the last part of their final year ripped away with no prom, spring sports or play. But you persevered and finished strong. We are so proud of you.”

Haskins thanked the seniors for the memories they have brought to the school and the impacts they have had on members of the junior class.

“You will be greatly missed, but we know you will move on to do great things, and will be able to handle anything,” he said.

Butler thanked the teaching faculty, which he noted were scattered throughout the crowd (most of those looking on were inside cars parked in the west lot near where the outdoor ceremony took place in front of the gymnasium).

He also recognized members of the New Buffalo Area Schools Board of Education — Lisa Black, Lisa Werner, Patricia Newton, Roger Lijewski, John Haskins, Frank Magro and Charles Heit.

Heit cited the support of parents, grandparents, family and friends for helping the graduates through their educational journey, adding that such support also contributed to the New Buffalo Area Schools being recognized as one of top districts in the state of Michigan and across the country. He also thanked the “extremely talented and dedicated faculty, staff and administration” for all they do.

Heit said the Class of 2020 “has endured much during these challenging times, and we want to acknowledge your perseverance, and congratulate you for your many accomplishments … We are proud of each and every one of you and we wish you the best as you embark upon the next chapter in your life.”

Senior Kira Arvanitis said the teachers and administration faced a wild challenge — “They had to change every aspect of school to fit an online format” — and in a very short time.

“We’re grateful that everyone was so proactive in the creation of this plan, and worked hard throughout the remainder of the year to maintain it,” she said.

Arvanitis noted that senior bid farewell to teachers Kirsten Fenton and Kelly Weidenmiller.

She noted that Fenton (a science teacher) made a big impact on the school with classes that were super-intense but also super-fun.

Weidenmiller (the high school Spanish teacher) was praised for her extremely organized classroom, attentiveness to students, and determined to make her class both enjoyable and educational.

“We’ve gone on so many immersive trips with her. We went on the Latin American food tour, we went to salsa classes, and we even went to Spain, which was amazing.”

Arvanitis also thanked custodians for maintaining a clean and safe building for the staff still working inside. And she said “the lunch ladies” took care of the kids who rely on school lunches.

Superintendent Dr. Jeff Leslie said it was great to see everyone again.

“It’s been a long time since March 13th,” he said, referencing a bizarre, strange end to the school year.

Leslie said he’s learned that he’s taken a lot for granted in this, his 14th year as an administrator and 29th year in education, with the sudden absence of events like proms, spring sports and just getting to see the students every day and waving goodbye at the end of each school day.

“Once it’s taken away you realize that you shouldn’t take any of it for granted,” he said.

Leslie said he feels truly blessed to work with great school board, great teachers, great administrators and great kids from pre-K to the high school and hopes this year’s graduates will come back and tell “the rest of the story.”

During the portion of the Look Back at the Years dealing with the freshman and sophomore period, Clair Workman and Mary Mayer recalled how freshman year included welcoming many new staff members including Superintendent Dr, Jeff Leslie and Class of 2020 Co-Advisor Natalie Walter, introducing the House Cup Games, and the beginning of the school’s own radio station (WNBI, which did a live broadcast of graduation) and broadcasting class. Other highlights included the boys soccer team reaching regionals for the first time, “She Kills Monsters” and “Disney Through the Looking Glass” being staged, the Marching Band performed its “The Weather Report” show, receiving a Division 1 rating and best color guard award.

Highlights of sophomore year included a new dress code “that was strictly enforced, but didn’t hang around too long;” the Robotics and Quiz Bowl teams made it to state-level competitions, Eva Kor talked about her experiences with The Holocaust at the school while Ravi shared secrets of his success, and an end-of-year Super Hero Race in honor of those battling cancer.

Looking back at their junior year, Vinson said students spent countless hours of studying for the SATs, won the Homecoming golf cart decorating competition, were the Cougars instead of the Bison in football, had six players from the class on the conference championship volleyball team, were treated to a production of “A Christmas Carol,” saw the boys basketball team claim a district title, the boys soccer team win districts, and the track team claim a conference crown. After taking the SAT test, the class put on a Prom described as “one of the best nights New Buffalo has ever thrown” with a DJ from Chicago and some pretty good food.”

Comer noted that New Buffalo High School was one of 13 Michigan schools recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as 2019 Blue Ribbon Schools where students achieve high learning standards during the class’s senior year.

Other senior year highlights included the girls volleyball team winning districts and the class getting first place in Winterfest.

Butler introduced the following Senior Scholars (who have a 3.5 or higher grade point average, a score of 1130 or higher on the SAT test): Jesse Arp, Kira Arvanitis, Emily Baughman, Amandine DeSimone, Marjolaine DeSimone, Jacob Fidler, Grace Gradowski, Rachel Hofstetter, Ashton Jacobs Golebiewski, Andrew Kuta, and Jacob Nerada.

He also recognized seniors Kira Arvanitis, Jacob Fidler, Grace Gradowski and Leigha Vinson for receiving both the State of Michigan and Global Seals of Biliteracy; STEM Certification recipients Jesse Arp, Sarah Eberly and Jacob Nerada; Senior Athlete of the Year Mary Mayer; and Box Factory Emerging Artist of the Year Sonja Heath.

The Commencement Ceremony also included a performance of “Gone, Gone, Gone” by members of the New Buffalo Area Schools Choir, with Butler recognizing seniors involved in Band and Choir programs.

Class Advisors were Edward Fidler and Natalie Walter.

Members of the New Buffalo High School Class of 2020 are: Jesse Arp**, Kira Arvanitis****, Emily Baughman**, Daniel Bowen***, Aliyah Brown, Ian Cawley, Michael Comer, Amandine DeSimone****, Marjoliane DeSimone****, Clay Drake, Sarah Eberly**, Marcus Escoto*, Emily Fatter, Haley Feeback**, Jacob Fidler***, Michael Flick*, Rogelio Garcia, Grace Gradowski****, Jacqueline Hauseman*, Sonja Heath**, Rachel Hofstetter****, Ashton Jacobs Golebiewski**, Samantha Jarrett, Henry Johnson*, Nickolas Keen, Izabella Koller*, Andrew Kuta**, Mary Mayer*, Tucker Morse, Hope Motycka*, Rose Nallenweg****, Jacob Nerada****, Rebecca-Kyah Nielson*, Taylor Oselka**, Phineas Payne*, Adam Ripley*, Joseph Roberts, Justin Smith, Gabriel Tingley, Leigha Vinson*, Aidan White*, Joseph Wick, Clair Workman*.

**** Indicates Summa Cum Laude (Gold Cord); *** Magna Cum Laude (Silver Cord); ** Cum Laude (Bronze Cord); * Honors (Blue Cord)

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