The graduates of Paonia High School's Class of 2017 finish what they start, excel in all they do and they stand out like no other class -- so it's only fitting they should have an entirely distinctive graduation ceremony. With those words -- and the announcement that the Paonia girls had just won their fifth consecutive state track title -- assistant principal Karla Head welcomed friends and family members to the graduation celebration Sunday afternoon.
Commencement ceremonies across the county were moved to Sunday to avoid potential conflicts with state track and baseball competition, but no one let Mother Nature in on the plan. Winter weather forced the state track meet to be moved from Thursday, Friday and Saturday to a two-day event on Saturday and Sunday.
Also on Saturday, the Paonia boys sailed through the first round of 2A baseball playoffs, then squeezed out a 1-0 win over Hotchkiss. They hurried home from Pueblo in time for graduation, but return to Runyon Field next weekend to continue their quest for a state title.
The five graduates on the track team, however, had a difficult choice to make and they opted to stay on the Front Range and compete. They participated in a graduation ceremony organized by the Colorado High School Activities Association, then took part in the Paonia ceremonies via videoconference. In Golden, PHS principal Randal Palmer recognized Warren Minerich, Sophia Anderson, Emily Pieper and Brianna Van Vleet.
In Paonia, the graduates accepted their diplomas from school board member Jan Tuin as Kriss Allen read future plans and listed $789,811 in scholarships.
Of the 35 graduates, 22 will attend college and seven will attend a technical college. Seventeen will attend school in-state, nine will compete in sports and 23 have been offered scholarships. One graduate will join the U.S. Navy in June to become a member of the military police.
Graduates plan to study kinesiology, engineering, computer science, nutrition, Spanish, fine arts and journalism, education, religion, mechanics, veterinary medicine, nursing, criminal justice and criminology, business, biology, energy management, childhood development and speech therapy. One student will study computer coding at a coding boot camp to learn software development.
"I just hope not a single one of us lose sight of what our deepest goals are," co-valedictorian Tim Helmer urged. "Also that we may stay true to our passions, even if they change every so often."
Co-valedictorian Colby Simpson had a simple and straightforward message that focused on the "right now."
"We are all blessed to graduate in this town. This place is special. The love and support is unmatched and the atmosphere is second to none. My message/advice to you is not to leave too fast -- don't depart Paonia without giving it a proper goodbye. Be sure to take a piece, no matter how big or how small, of this beautiful place with you."
The co-salutatorians were Blake Benson and Dagan Rienks. Benson talked about roots -- "and I can not think of anywhere else that provides stronger roots to weather whatever hard times to come and for this I say thank you. We will forever be proud to be rooted in this community."
"I can't help but reminisce on all the memories we have made and shared together," said Rienks. "So I ask, how is it that high school, such a small portion of our lives, can produce a lifetime of memories? Memories that we will pass to our children and grandchildren. Graduates, hold on to these memories, as they will only become more precious as time goes on."
On behalf of classmates, he thanked the teachers, staff, families and community for their investment in the Class of 2017.
The commencement speaker was a teacher, coach and friend who worked at Paonia High School for two years. Even though Max Schuman and his wife moved to Castle Rock, they continue to support Paonia athletes when postseason play takes them to the Front Range.
The two years he taught English and coached basketball at Paonia High School were "transformational," Schuman said.
"I hope you understand how amazing this town is. This community is tough and proud and the way you support one another, especially in times of need, is powerful and inspirational."
He talked about how negativity dominates our thoughts and how we can overcome the negativity bias to reach full potential. "Surround yourself with great people, travel and read great books. Have the courage to follow your passions. You have the power to control your thoughts and your attitude. Do not limit yourself with negative self-talk. You are prepared; you have everything you need. It is time to recognize your greatness."
Several special awards were presented, including the Rockwell Cup to an outstanding senior boy and an outstanding senior girl, as determined by the student body. Character, leadership, scholastic ability and volunteer service to school and community are the criteria for this award, which is a 109-year tradition. The 2017 recipients were Haley Park and Colby Simpson.
Elena Niermann was the recipient of the Denise Kossler Fine Arts Award. Denise Kossler was a Paonia native who taught music and art, and was an advocate for the development of the "whole person."
The P blanket was presented to Emily Pieper at the state track meet in Lakewood, and to Trevor Smith in Paonia.
A special P blanket was prepared for Krista Carsten, who coached volleyball for 34 years. She is retiring from Paonia High School after posting a 146-38 record during her six-year stint at PHS.
Another retiring faculty member, Cathy Simpson, has impacted the lives of hundreds of students during her 25-year career at PHS. Her praises were sung by principal Randal Palmer, via Karla Head, although Simpson had hoped to retire quietly.