YSU football coach Jon Heacock, a West Branch alumnus, gave an emotional commencement address.
By NANCY TULLIS
VINDICATOR SALEM BUREAU
BELOIT -- Tassels were turned. Graduates hugged. Parents cried.
Nothing was said, but everything was said.
Two weeks after 15-year-old West Branch students Jonathan Stauffer and Kelly Coblentz died, and two days after students and staff of six area high schools were vaccinated against the meningococcal outbreak that killed the two students, the 181 members of the West Branch High School class of 2001 received their diplomas.
"It's depressing," said Micah Johnson, an honors graduate who will attend Youngstown State University. "These two [Jonathan and Kelly] will never see this day. Their parents won't get to see them graduate."
Sunday's graduation ceremony was the first in the new West Branch Community Auditorium.
Scholarship totals: Guidance counselor Margaret Kinnick announced the graduates would receive nearly $700,000 in scholarships.
Kinnick also announced that the school's problem-solving team, which was led by graduate Rebecca McCue and returned late Saturday from international competition in Georgia, took first place, defeating teams from across the United States and four foreign countries.
During the graduation ceremony, there was no direct mention of the two students who died, but references to the brevity and value of life were everywhere.
Graduate Erika Hughes sang country artist Lee Ann Womack's "I Hope You Dance," which includes the words, "May you never take one single breath for granted ... ."
Valedictorians' words: "As we all know, there is no promise of tomorrow," said Jen Braden, one of five valedictorians in the class. "Every single day must be one you won't regret."
The others echoed similar sentiments.
McCue urged classmates to soak up the good times so as to have good memories to turn to in the dark times. "Don't let your heart become hardened by the trials of life," she said.
"Everyone is given a unique gift by God," said Adam Wise. "No one can do your job. No one can take your place. As we all know, life can be too short, so make the most of who you are."
James Yaggi reflected on studies, gatherings with friends, and "AOL chats into the wee hours," and that "the difficult lessons of life are the ones you most remember."
Emily Zura urged her classmates to live each day to the fullest. "We can't experience the beauty of life without the sorrow," she said. "Make each day precious and don't take anything for granted."
Heacock's address: Youngstown State University football head Coach Jon Heacock, a West Branch alumnus, gave an emotional commencement address and said he was humbled to be asked to speak to the graduates.
"This place is close to my heart," Heacock said. He told graduates that only later, when they have stepped away from the school and community for a few years, will they realize its importance.
"Through all the good and bad, you will look to this place and see that all the things that matter, you learned right here," he said.
"When someone said you couldn't pass that class, and someone said you couldn't make that team, you stepped up, and here you are," he continued. "Now you will be asked to step up again.
"I would not have taken one step, I would not be where I am today without this community, my friends and my family," he said. "For you, this is an end, but also a beginning."