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Johnstown graduates urged to persevere

Johnstown graduates urged to persevere

Commencement held for 136 students
Johnstown graduates urged to persevere
Johnstown High School graduate Jenna Parslow walks under arches at Knox Field for the school's commencement Saturday.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber

In a valedictory speech that referenced Albert Einstein's thoughts on the concept of time, observations about the 'pukey' brown color scheme in the school's library, and how living life can be like eating a bag of potato chips, Emily Wheelis put her education in perspective for her classmates and community Saturday at Johnstown High School's 2019 graduation. 

Wheelis provided examples of lessons learned over her time at the Greater Johnstown School District.

She said during her education she learned about how to conform to expectations, when she was scolded by her kindergarten teacher on the first day of school for running to play with the classroom's toys, instead of putting her things away in her pre-assigned cubby. 

"Mrs. Quinn marched over and demanded to know what I was doing, chastising me for my terrible behavior," she said. "That day I learned conformity, but more importantly that there are rules and procedures."

Wheelis said she was humbled during a sixth-grade skiing field trip when she crashed into a snowbank over and over again.

"All of my classmates laughed at me as I struggled to get up and into the moving lift, which I also could barely get out of at the top. That day I learned humility, but also that we have different talents," she said.

It was during her junior year, waiting for an Advanced Placement Composition exam in the half-renovated school library, staring at walls painted yellow "by someone who had never seen the color before," that Wheelis watched a classmate calmly draw on herself with a black pen, while she sat with her heart racing in anticipation of the test. 

"That day I learned apathy, but most importantly the importance of relaxation," she said. 

But during her time in the Johnstown district, Wheelis said she also learned how to become the best version of herself, about courage, hope and about how to appreciate the present, gobbling up one potato chip at a time.

"To truly enjoy life, we have to be able to enjoy the small moments. We have to appreciate little things like kind smiles, and warm hugs and matching underwear, and every other insignificant joy," she said.

"I have definitely made my fair share of mistakes over the years — as I know everyone else has too — but luckily we live in Johnstown where only everyone will know about it forever."

About 400 people turned out Saturday, under ominous, dark storm clouds to watch the Johnstown High School graduation. The JHS class of 2019  graduated 136 students, 34 of them receiving Regents diplomas, some with honors and advanced designations, and 22 students with career and technical endorsements. Four additional students graduated in January.

Three students spoke at the graduation: class of 2019 President Charles Brown, Wheelis and class salutatorian Rachel Lee.

"Everyone just take the time to look around you because we will never all be in the same place at the same time ever again," Lee said. "We will all go our separate ways, but we will always have JHS to bond us together. Both we and the school have faced so many obstacles that I know we are going to continue to overcome," Lee said. 

Lee's speech was the only subtle reference among the speeches to the fiscal crisis that Johnstown's school system continues to face, as the district attempts to fill a multimillion-dollar budget deficit amid the constraints of the New York state property tax cap. Johnstown cut about 19 positions from its staff for the 2019-20 school year, and nearly all of the funding for its athletic teams.

Johnstown High School next year will begin a career pathways curriculum, meaning the class of 2019 will be one of the last classes to graduate under the traditional curriculum for the school. 

Christine Krempa, Johnstown's varsity field hockey coach, sold water bottles at the graduation, nominally for the class of 2022, but with the proceeds being donated from the class to the $311,000 fundraising goal needed to restore Johnstown's sports teams.

Krempa said, so far, Johnstown's Purple and Gold Booster Club has received $115,000 toward the goal, with another $10,000 likely in the pipeline over the next week. Krempa said about $11,000 has been raised so far from the effort's gofundme.com page — gofundme.com/f/gmvjqd-johnstown-athletics-save-our-sports. Weekly updates about the fundraising efforts can be seen posted on Wednesdays at the Purple & Gold Booster Club Facebook page.

Krempa said she's been impressed and gratified to see many donations from other schools' athletic teams and players who have given money to help Johnstown keep playing sports.

Three adults spoke at the 2019 graduation: Johnstown High School Principal Scott Hale, Superintendent Patricia Kilburn and school board President Kathy Dougherty. 

Hale said he knows the students graduating Saturday have no idea where their futures will lead them, because he didn't when he was a JHS graduate. 

"Nobody can predict where you will be in ten years, but that's OK," Hale said. "There's someone who sat in those chairs at 17 and had no clue he'd be giving a speech today, and I can tell you those are the same chairs I sat in," Hale said. 

Hale's eight-year-old son Drew was diagnosed with brain cancer in May. In June nearly all of the students at the Greater Johnstown School District "wore blue for Drew," part of the #HaleStrong fundraising effort to help the Hale family as Drew undergoes surgery and chemotherapy treatments. 

Hale told the students that a commitment to character, grit and perspective will help them to be successful in life.

"Sometimes life will put an obstacle in your way, but you have to stay hopeful and positive that you will overcome it no matter how difficult it may be," he said. "Class of 2019, in 2039 I'm going to crash your 20-year reunion to see if you remember these three things. Class of 2019, you will always hold a special place in my heart, and I wish you nothing but the best. Thank you."

Kilburn's gave what could be her last speech at a Johnstown graduation. Kilburn is a finalist for the Oneida-Herkimer-Madison BOCES district superintendent position.

Kilburn has been the public face of the school district as it has faced unprecedented layoffs, program cuts and double-digit tax increase proposals. She told the students that perseverance is the key to success in life, and read to them the poem, "See it Through," by Edgar Albert Guest. 

"When you’re up against a trouble, meet it squarely, face to face," she said. "Lift your chin and set your shoulders, plant your feet and take a brace. When it’s vain to try to dodge it, do the best that you can do. You may fail, but you may conquer, see it through."

Dougherty gave her last graduation speech as school board president, having elected not to run for another term in May. She quoted from the poem, "Reciprocity," by Vassar Miller. 

"'No gift may be, except a giving back', I think that line expresses what many of the adults in attendance are feeling today — that being that for all we think we have given to our students, what each of you young people have given us is really so much more," she said. 

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