Despite a senior year that was abruptly abbreviated in March due to a worldwide pandemic, the Class of 2020 at Gowanda High School was able to cling to tradition for commencement and, with it, a sense of normalcy.
Conferral of degrees at Hillis Field took place over five days (Monday to Friday, June 15-19, 2020) with each graduate having an opportunity to walk the track in front of up to 10 of their loved ones, turn their tassel and pause for celebratory snapshots. Covid-19 changed the way commencement looks at Gowanda this year, so the district got creative and tried to mark the milestone as joyously as possible in the face of health-and-safety related restrictions limiting the number of attendees.
Graduation officially concluded with a community-wide display of support with a Senior Parade that wound its way through the village Friday evening following a group photo op on Hillis Field. The grads were encouraged to wear their caps and gowns and decorate their vehicles for a festive procession as their families, friends and neighbors cheered from the sidewalks and lawns to practice safe social distancing.
Throngs of well-wishers gathered downtown, where a banner for each senior featuring their portrait were donated by Becky Grudzien of Zoar Valley Gifts & More Store and displayed prominently in the village. Each student will be able to pick up their banner as a keepsake after the Fourth of July holiday.
Cloudless skies, warm temperatures, and bright sunshine made for perfectly picturesque setting over the past two weeks, despite less-than-ideal circumstances. Dozens of district employees collaborated to ensure the Class of 2020 received recognition for their achievements.
Dozens of seniors donned caps and gowns — and masks, of course – to practice safe social distancing as the 136th commencement unfolded. The Buildings & Grounds department spray-painted a congratulatory note on the field, the scoreboard displayed a message that loomed above the grads, and elaborate gift boxes donated by local businesses, organizations and individuals were distributed. A large “2020” cutout was erected at the exit end of the field so students could pose for snapshots. On the sidelines, more staff kept their distance while supporting the effort by directing families, recording video, helping with music and audio. A live-stream of the ceremony was available online every day for those who could not attend in person.
Superintendent Dr. Robert B. Anderson, high school Principal Rebekah Moraites and Board of Education President Mark D. Nephew greeted each graduate and up to 10 of their loved ones one by one, ensuring each student was able to enjoy some semblance of the typical commencement Gowanda usually hosts.
Absent from the mini-ceremonies were the live speeches by valedictorian Christian Cook, salutatorian Tatum Stitzel, class president Olivia Pawlak and guest speaker and alum Joe Cook (the father of Christian). They recorded their remarks in a graduation video to be posted to the district website next week.
Keynote speaker Joe Cook, 2003 alumni, and also the father of valedictorian Christian Cook, began the virtual portion of the ceremony by thanking the staff and community for pulling together to care for and educate the students of Gowanda during the pandemic.
Segueing into a personal story of perseverance, he shared that he underwent surgery for a benign brain tumor about 18 months ago.
“The doctors said it would be complicated, but that I’d be home in a week or so.”
Complications kept Cook in the hospital for 38 days and he has enduring struggles, including coping with double vision.
“Hence the pirate look I’m going with,” he joked of the eyepatch he now uses.
The road to recovery was long. Standing, picking up forks, and remembering names was difficult.
“I struggled to heal and regain the ‘Joe’ from before surgery,” he said, noting he often felt depressed, angry and defeated. “Despite all these emotions, complications and battle after battle, do you know what helped me get through? The love and support of others including family, friends, doctors, nurses and especially my fellow patients who were facing similar obstacles.”
Cook emphasized that, after the past four months, every senior now has a personal story of perseverance. They missed college visits, senior trips, milestones and rites of passage.
“Your parents grieve for what you’re missing, and you grieve for your parents because you’ll never get to relive these moments or events again,” said Cook. “You are not alone. Each and every one of you will have a battle to fight and win. The best way to win it is to face it with each other. Stick together, stand together through this all. Face the future together as a team with Panther pride. Help power others on your team through their obstacles and your team will help power you through yours.”
Salutatorian Tatum Stitzel, who is heading to St. Bonaventure University to study accounting, began her remarks by acknowledging the elephant in the room.
“I know this is not how were anticipating spending this monumental moment in our lives,” she said to her peers. “Just as I am sure no one expected the final semester to end this way. It was always jokingly said that the Class of 2020 was supposed to have perfect vision. But no one saw this coming.”
She encouraged her classmates to look to the future and grasp inspiration where they can find it.
“High school is a chapter in our story that has ended. And it is time for us to move on and turn the page and begin writing the next lines. We don’t share the same cookie-cutter type ending as everyone else,” said Stitzel.
She urged them to use this setback as an opportunity to prove what they can truly accomplish.
“Let’s together turn the page and move on. As we begin the next part of our lives we don’t have to be afraid to change and start all over again,” said Stitzel. “Things don’t go as planned. Obviously. But we will always be able to call Gowanda our home. This is the town where we found inspiration and encouragement.”
Valedictorian Christian Cook, who is heading to Binghamton University to study physics and astronomy, began his speech with an all-encompassing thank you to health care workers, first responders, school staff, parents and the close-knit community. He credited them with helping all the seniors celebrate this turning point in their lives in the best way possible.
“Gowanda is truly an amazing place to live and grow for the first 18 years of our lives,” he said, then rattled off the many opportunities for involvement and furthering education provided by Gowanda CSD.
He encouraged his fellow grads to make amends and settle disputes.
“Tell your friends, families and teachers you appreciate having them in your life,” he said. “Don’t leave anything left unsaid that you may regret later on.”
Reminiscing about running with his fellow teammates, the younger Cook said he grew to push himself with the help of others.
“And this is what I want you all to take away, Class of 2020: Close your eyes for a minute and picture this: You’re closer to 100 years old than you are to admit and talking about how you wish you could go back to the ‘good old days.’ These past years of high school and the following couple years of our lives have been and are going to be
what we look back on as the ‘good old days.’ These years are the years of our prime so live your life to the absolute fullest now so that you leave no room for regrets,” he continued. “Don’t postpone things til the next day, the next week or the next year. You never know if something will suddenly take all your opportunities away. The coronavirus took half of our senior year and we could never have planned for that. Live out these next few years to the fullest…. Imagine being able to tell endless stories about your crazy hard-to-believe experience. And I am proud to be a member of the Class of 2020 and to share the most unique graduation with all of you. Congrats to every single one of you.”
On Friday night, as the procession crossed the bridge over the Cattaraugus River, the loud cheers of the crowds greeted Gowanda’s sons and daughters. And as each graduate paused in front of the Hollywood Theater for the announcement of their name, one thing was abundantly clear: A global crisis has not dampened Gowanda’s pride in its students.