NEW BUFFALO — Members of the New Buffalo High School Class of 2019 were recognized for their many achievements, their shared experiences and hopes for the future, and a “job well done” during Sunday, June 2, Commencement exercises.

“Commencement is a time for conclusion and validation. It’s also a time for new beginnings,” said Principal Wayne Butler in leading off the ceremony.

“Thank you to all parents, family and friends for your love and constant support, as well as the members of the New Buffalo High School faculty and staff for your guidance and patience.”

An empty chair in the midst of this year’s graduates served as a reminder of an absent classmate. In the chair was a photo of Brandon Biolette, who died in a Dec. 11, 2018, car accident.

“We continue to miss and remember him every day. I would like to say thank you to my classmates, our community and our school for coming together and supporting each other through this very rough time,” said senior Riley English regarding the loss of a classmate she called “my best friend.”

“As a class, a school and a community we are working through the loss of a classmate. I can still see Brandon’s smile, or should I say his grin, when he would look up at me and say ‘I’m alright. I’m OK.’ We have reserved a spot for him among the graduates, and we do feel his spirit here as we gather today,” Butler noted.

The tradition of handing off the “Totem Pole” from the graduating class to the current Junior Class (which dates to the 1950s) was continued as Junior Class Co-Presidents Grace Gradowski and Jacob Fidler were invited to attach their class colors by 2018-19 Class Co-Presidents Libby Price and Maxwell Folino.

Gradowski assured this year’s graduates they could leave knowing they would be handing their school off to a senior class that will “keep writing the New Buffalo High School story just as you have the past four years.”

“We are lucky to have watched all of you grow here in your four years and we know that you will all blossom in the next phase of your lives,” she added.

Price said members of the class must enter the world beyond high school with their heads held high, taking with them everything they have learned and move on with their lives.

Folino said “As I look out on my class today, I see a group of people that can do anything they set their minds to. And I urge you to go into your life and do something that makes you happy.”

Michael Cluster, the School Resource Officer for the Middle/High School (and formerly for New Buffalo Elementary School) served as guest speaker for the ceremony.

“Congratulations Class of 2019, you did it, job well done!” he began.

Cluster also thanked staff and school board for “years of hard work and sacrifice in getting these graduates to where they’re sitting today.”

He told this year’s seniors that he has known many of them since their grade-school days.”

“Mr. Cluster never forgets,” he quipped.

He recalled the ornaments they created in elementary school and hung on the City Hall Christmas tree, their first day of middle school (when everyone in the building was bigger than them), band concerts and dances, forming their class identity in high school, switching from Bison to Cougars and back to Bison again in sports, chaperoning the prom, and more.

Some of the “words of wisdom” advice Cluster imparted on the Class of 2019 included: “Have fun”; “Feast today for the work begins tomorrow”: “Embrace uncertainty, it’s OK. For if you will not, it will embrace you first”; “It’s OK to hold on to the past, high school friends, but not too tightly”; “Don’t be afraid to ask questions or speak with your professors”; “Lean on your family for support”; “Be confident in all that you do”: “Remember there is no such thing as failure, just do-overs”; “Pay it forward (it doesn’t always have to be with money)”; “Be a good listener.”

He also stressed to “Always be honest.”

“Your integrity is everything. Once you lose it, it’s difficult to get it back.”

In regard to the loss of Biolette, Cluster said: “We experienced something that came way to early for all of us. Together as a school we cried, we mourned, we counseled, and we went to a funeral. Rest in peace, Brandon Biolette.”

Performances by the district’s new choir (singing “You’ll Be in my Heart”) and the High School Band (playing “With Quiet Courage’) followed.

Eight members of the graduating class participated in the “A Look Back at the Years” portion of the ceremony.

Althea McGreehan and Annabelle Yanz reminisced on freshman year highlights such as top songs like “Uptown Funk” and “Sugar,” the Cavs won the NBA Finals, same-sex marriage became legal, and members of the Class of 2019 marked all kinds of high school “firsts” in a year full of learning and experience (and the beginning of the school’s radio station).

Looking back at a sophomore year that included welcoming Superintendent Dr. Jeff Leslie and gym Teacher Natalie Walter, top-rated performances by the marching band, were Andrew Hoffstetter and Joseph Turcotte.

The junior year recap was handled by Morgan Motycka and Jessica Hewitt, who also honored class advisors Suzanne Cramer, Elizabeth Ditto and Jennifer Bauer.

Concluding the Class of 2019’s history lesson with a review of the current school year (the year they became Cougars, young adults and the top dogs in their school) were Riley English and Ben O’Donnell. It was noted that the Class of 2019 won Homecoming and Winterfest weeks, the volleyball team won a conference championship, the boys basketball squad reached regional semifinals, the band got straight 1 Ratings at districts, Spanish students took their semi-annual trip to Spain, and Envirothon teams took first and second place at state in Forestry along with claiming third place in Soils and Agriculture and a People’s Choice Award.

Butler said the NBHS Class of 2019 leaves a strong legacy — including scoring number-one out of 535 high schools in Michigan in Social Studies on the M-Step Test; (and also 17th in English and 35th in Math on the SAT);

He recognized the 2019 Senior Scholars for scoring high on the SAT Test and carrying an exemplary GPA. They are: Sarah Baughman, Riley Cain, Bailey Ferrell, Maxwell Folino, Olivia Haskins, Andrew Hofstetter, Lucy Johnson, Alexis Moser, Libby Price, Alilyn Purcell, Jacob Smith, Marissa Tavernier, Joseph Turcotte and Emma Wolf.

Board of Education President Charles Heit said the New Buffalo Area Schools are blessed to have an outstanding administration, faculty and staff, before leaving this year’s graduates with a quote from longtime NBHS Principal and coach Ron Hart: “What your mind believes your body can achieve.”

Superintendent Dr. Jeff Leslie gave credit to members of the Class of 2019 for New Buffalo being nominated as a National Blue Ribbon High School based on their “stellar academic achievement.”

He anticipates receiving official word on the honor this fall.

“Last year one public high school in the State of Michigan received this honor. The year before that there were zero public high schools in the state ... the last time a public high school in Southwest Michigan earned the National Blue Ribbon distinction was Edwardsburg in 1993.

“This is truly a great honor, and you caused this to happen.”

Graduate-to-be Tannah Nieman recognized the staff members seated right behind this year’s graduates for being “there for us when we were at our best” and supporting them “when we were down.” while AyJa Ward, the final student to receive a diploma, led the traditional Turning of the Tassels prior to a well-timed cap toss by the entire group of graduates.

Members of the New Buffalo High School Class of 2019 are (**** indicates Summa Cum Laude, *** Magna Cum Laude, ** Cum Laude, * Honoros): Haley Andre-Grzywacz, Sarah Baughman***, Colin Bendiner*, Kaitlyn Biela*, Riley Cain***, Donavon Curtis**, Riley English, Daniel Fairchild, Bailey Ferrell**, Maxwell Folino**, Daisy Fox*, Olivia Haberichter**, Olivia Haskins, Jessica Hewitt*, Jordan Hoadley, Andrew Hofstetter***, Lucy Johnson****, Joshua Kaminski*, Alaina Maniscalco*, Michael Mark*, Althea McGreehan***, Alexis Moser**, Morgan Motycka*, Blake Newton, Tannah Nieman*, Benjamin O’Donnell*, Fatima Ortega, Jaidyn Parmley*, Libby Price****, Alilyn Purcell***, Colbie Robertson, Alexander Schmock*, Jacob Smith**, Nathanial Snyder, Brady Stambaugh*, Brenden Stark*, Marissa Tavernier**, Daniel Thompson, Binh Tran, Joseph Turcotte**, Andrick Villa, AyJa Ward*, Emma Wolf****, and Annabelle Yanz*.

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