COLUMBIA CITY — Columbia City High School’s Class of 2020 closed out the 61-year-old building with one last event — a graduation ceremony in July.
The June graduation was postponed to July 24 due to the coronavirus pandemic, and Whitley County Consolidated Schools managed to host the event despite many other schools canceling graduation in its entirety.
Graduation was moved from the Donald S. Weeks Gymnasium to the Max Gandy Athletic Field, and capped the building at 15,593 total graduates. The building will be demolished after the opening of the new Columbia City High School in August, ending an era in Whitley County.
Teacher Todd Armstrong, who has been selected by multiple graduating classes in the past, was the guest speaker at the event — and he didn’t want to miss it.
“Part of the reason I wanted to speak was because I like the class, but also because it’s the last event we’re going to have here,” he said.
Armstrong went on to list the names of some of the individuals who have had an influence over the years, such as Bob Brittain, Jim Thompson, Larry Reed, Geoff Penrod, Don Weeks, Mike Nowling, Tom Lough, Wayne Kreiger, Judy Moore, Don Armstrong, Tom Wood, Barb Pentangelo, Barry Leiter, John Slavich, Ron Frickey, Susie Mullett (Riecke), Bob and Roseann Fahl and Jeff Clark.
“Some of you guys know those names,” he told the graduates, “I guarantee the people behind me are nodding because they know those names.”
The Class of 2020 had four valedictorians: Madison Arnold, Sidney Basham, and Nick and Nathan Mills.
Arnold and Basham spoke together, talking about how the class shared many firsts and lasts.
“We’re the first to take the AP test virtually, the first to have entire (classes on) Zoom meetings in our pajamas — we’re the last to learn all four years in this building. The last to experience floods, air conditioning breaks, power outages. We’re the last to visit the library, the last to eat in the cafeteria and the last to open the doors 10 minutes late because the Starbucks line was too long,” they said. “We’re the last to play on these fields, perform on our stage in this auditorium, and the last to graduate from this building.
“This school has history. It holds the stories and legacies of many generations before us. Some of our parents walked these halls. These memories provide the character for CCHS, whether it be in this building or the next.”
The Mills brothers discussed the major national events that have taken place in their lifetime.
“Nearly all of us came into this world in the middle of a crisis — post 9/11 when the dust from the World Trade Centers still hung over the air … now we graduate in the midst of a pandemic that will forever shape the next chapter of our lives,” they said.
The graduation capped an un-traditional end to the school year and brought some sense of normalcy during a time when not much exists.
“What a weird year,” Armstrong said. “The last time I talked to you guys, we were heading home, thinking it was going to be a couple weeks and everything would be back to business as usual. I haven’t seen you in a long time. It’s good to see faces and know you’re doing alright.”
Armstrong spoke on the national turmoil, not just over the COVID-19 pandemic, but also a time when police reform and racial justice are creating a political divide.
“Here’s something to remember: Regardless of age, sex, religion, identity — we’re all American. We’re better when we work together. Hopefully, the spark that will make our society better starts here.”
The ceremony looked different than in previous years. Typically, the event is held in the gymnasium. Typically, students were allotted 10 tickets apiece so parents, siblings and grandparents could attend. Typically, students shook hands with their principals as they received their diplomas. They sat close to their classmates, and those in attendance could see the smiles on their faces as they walked across the stage.
This year, nearly everyone on the football field was wearing face masks. Students were spread apart, didn’t get to shake hands as they received their diplomas, and each student only received two tickets to the event — leaving out other family members — some of which could be found outside the fence, watching the event from a distance, and others who watched an online stream.
Regardless, the ceremony was met with a round of applause by those in attendance, who appreciated CCHS’s willingness to host the event — the last ever at the 1959 Columbia City High School property — one last farewell to the “Old Barn on Whitley Street.”