The 2014 Vilonia High School graduating class is the "true definition of Vilonia strong," said graduate speaker Jessica Stanley, Saturday morning, addressing her peers and a packed audience filling the stands at Farris Hall on the campus of the University of Central Arkansas.
"This is a class that has proven time and time again that we are the true definition of Vilonia strong," she said. She spoke briefly about the "hard times." Some of the graduates faced injuries in their senior year and others dealt with illnesses. There were sleepless nights and days of endurance, she said, with two tornadoes in three years — both devastating the community.
"Our class did not crumble," she said. Instead, the class had the maturity to extend a helping hand to others. "We worked side by side," and persevered, she said. The class also learned how "truly precious life is and how lives can be changed in a moment," she added.
Kelly Glover, also a graduate speaker, received a round of applause when he told his peers "we’re done — we’re through — we’re finished." On a serious note, he followed up with "we are done with high school but we are not done with learning."
The average person, he said, lives just short of 80 years. Most of you, he said, addressing the graduates, have lived 18 years.
"A lot of us have 60 or more years," he said, to live and learn.
All 209 graduates wore the traditional red caps and gowns. This year’s format was a little different than in the past. A handful of baseball and softball players walked on stage first followed by the other graduates who walked in alphabetically order. Diplomas in hand, the team players were off to play in the Class 5A State Tournament Games.
Andy Ashley, high school principal, served as the announcer for the two hour event with help from assistant principal Ronnie Simmons. Each student’s name was read as they marched on stage. Diplomas were presented by Jerry Roberts, president of the Vilonia School District’s Board of Education, who has been battling a life-threatening illness for several years. On the board for 25 years, Roberts hasn’t missed a graduation. Other board members were also on hand as well as many school officials.
In concluding the ceremony, Ashley announced that 41 of the students graduated with honors. Scholarships, he said, for the graduating class totaled about $2.2 million.
Ashley also thanked many in attendance for their service including Dr. Frank Mitchell who has been the school district’s superintendent for 28 years. Mitchell will be retiring in June.
"I thank you. Vilonia thanks you," Ashley said.
After the ceremony, some of the new graduates shared bits and pieces regarding their trying year.
The caps and gowns of seven graduates were destroyed by the tornado. School officials were able to get them replaced in time for the ceremony.
One senior Savannah Riddle was hospitalized as a result of the April 27, tornado. A smile on her face and her diploma in her hand, she said, she felt blessed to be at the ceremony and to have her family with her. She is one of the seniors that lost her cap and gown as well as the rest of her possessions two weeks ago. "We were able to find my FFA jacket," she said.
Her father, Shawn, her mother, Melissa, and her two younger brothers Clayton and Brock, and her boyfriend Bradley Jenkins, were all huddled together with her in their house when the tornado hit. She and her boyfriend had just arrived there from attending church.
"There were no walls left standing," she said, sharing her memories of a horrific night. "I felt the floor lift up under us. I remember flying up in the air and something hitting me in the head."
All were left covered with debris and had injuries. She watched as her father dug her mother out of the debris. Savannah spent the night in the hospital. A large gash on her back, it required stitches. As well, her brother had stitches. Her dad suffered a broken hand. Her mother was also hospitalized for several days with a broken pelvis. She attended the graduation in a wheelchair.
"I’m just happy all of my family is here," she said. "It could be so much different."