Referring to them throughout his keynote address as a “class of destiny and hope,” U.S. Senator Pat Roberts spoke encouragingly to the 25 seniors of Greensburg High School receiving their diplomas Saturday afternoon under a sprawling complex of tents staked at the edge of the town’s golf course.
With the district’s school buildings part of the 90 percent of the town destroyed in the May 4 tornado, there were no public structures left in which to stage the event. Preferring to hold commencement within city limits, the administration opted for the relatively untouched eastern edge of town, the undisturbed greens and tee boxes offering a relative oasis on the lip of continuous blocks of wreckage and debris.
Roberts noted the atypical setting for the event and the tragedy that prompted it, speaking of Saturday as “a day you will remember for the rest of your lives, a day unlike any other graduating class.
He also spoke of the day that threatened the continuity of the community, May 4—a day he told the seniors had put them “through a storm and an ordeal unique to the history of Kansas…What we have here in Greensburg, Kansas America is a whole lot of people who specialize in the impossible.”
Roberts took time near the conclusion of his speech to give a personalized bit of advice to each of the graduates, from urging one young man to avoid driving his car in the lake in the future to encouraging another to continue his singing career while choosing to sing “Home on the Range” rather than “Oklahoma.”
He later turned to Taryn Stoltenberg, whose grandmother, Colleen Panzer, was one of the ten Greensburg victims of the tornado, telling her, “Your grandmother has the best seat overlooking these ceremonies. She is here; our prayers are with you.”
Another unique aspect to the event was the occasion of three speakers, U.S. Representative Jerry Moran and Lt. Gov. Mark Parkinson also taking turns at the podium.
Noting he’d been the speaker at GHS’s 1997 commencement, Moran also pointed out he hadn’t been asked back until this past week. “It must not have been very good ten years ago, because I haven’t been asked back until now.”
On a more serious note, Moran told the graduates everything they needed to know had been learned by Roberts and himself in their visits to Greensburg the previous two weeks. Among those lessons, the place of family, concern for one’s neighbors and “unfortunately the value of life, brought home to us by those who lost theirs.”
Moran also referred to the young, 20-year-old employee of the National Weather Service in Dodge City who made the decision to “push the button” for the tornado warning and then the rarely issued tornado emergency for Greensburg.
“He was at his high school graduation just a few years ago, and I’m sure he never dreamed back then he’d soon be making a decision that would save hundreds of lives,” he said. “You will have opportunities as well to show your good judgment and respect for life in the coming years, and I know you will equally take advantage of them.”
Parkinson told the seniors the storm had started them learning a key lesson of life; namely, how to “overcome adversity. You may be the first class of the new Greensburg High School, but not the last. There will be many, many more to come.”
Class President Jeremiah Jantz had earlier opened the ceremonies with a welcoming comment in which he said he’d always pictured his graduation taking place “in a building with air conditioning. But, all my classmates are alive and here with me and that’s what’s important. Not even an F5 tornado can stop us GHS seniors from graduating.”
Co-valedictorian Kelsey Heft referred to classmates going “through new beginnings—new homes, new clothes, new cars and new experiences.”
Her counterpart, Slade Headrick, compared the milestones of life to landmarks, all of which he noted were gone when he first drove through town the Tuesday after the storm.
“We’d lived here several years, but now we got lost because all the buildings, all the landmarks were gone, like the high school, Kwik Shop, football field,” he said. “But now we come to life’s landmarks, going to school from kindergarten up, graduating from high school, attending college. We need landmarks to guide us on to our future…We will build new landmarks around town, and use them to be stronger and better than we were before.”
Several awards were announced as well, Headrick, Brenden Jantz and salutatorian ShaRae Wadel as recipients of the KSHSAA citizenship award.
“These awards were typed up on my desk three weeks ago, but they’re now gone,” GHS principal Randy Fulton quipped. “I’ll have to get new ones to you guys later.”
Elementary teacher Arlene Oberle was also presented the Master Teacher Award for 2007 by BOE president Ki Gamble. Hers apparently survived the tornado.