By Merry Dudley
High School Executive Secretary
The Amherst High School Class of 2020 finished a historic year by becoming the first class to graduate on Heartland Farms Field during a long-postponed graduation ceremony, which was held on Saturday, August 1, 2020.
As most people know, this class of amazing students faced several challenges that were unprecedented for AHS. Their senior year was cut short as of March 13 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and they missed several traditional rites of passage, including prom; senior trip; the graduation walk through the elementary, middle, and high school hallways; Awards Night; Senior Breakfast; and perhaps most poignantly, the graduation ceremony itself. Thankfully, the school was able to restore some of these rites of passage later in the year.
District Administrator Michael Richie said, “Immediately after our May graduation ceremony was cancelled, we started working on what we could do. We came up with the date of August 1. We were going to do something on August 1 no matter what. We never thought about canceling.”
The staff put together three options—a face-to-face ceremony that would be held outdoors, a more traditional ceremony that would be held in the high school gym with a very limited crowd and all attendees required to wear masks, or a virtual graduation ceremony. “The school board was very supportive of our plan, and they were kept informed throughout the planning process,” Richie added.
As August 1 grew closer and some county and state restrictions were eased, the staff was also able to put together a modified Senior Breakfast followed by graduation practice on Friday, July 31. During the breakfast, the students got to view the Senior Slide Show, created by senior Mayce Drmolka. The slide show is an annual tradition and is usually shown during the graduation ceremony, but that couldn’t happen since this year’s ceremony was held outside. Instead, the slide show link was shared online in May and then enjoyed by the seniors together during Senior Breakfast.
High School Principal Mike Klieforth said, “With everything that the senior class had gone through this year, I am so happy that they were able to get a graduation. The seniors deserved closure to their academic careers here at Amherst High School. I know this meant a lot to the graduates as well as their families.”
Another senior tradition, the annual Awards Night in mid-May, was also canceled. Instead, Klieforth and High School Counselor Shelley Swanson put together a video to announce the winners of the various athletic, academic, and departmental awards as well as scholarships awarded by the Tomorrow River Scholarship Foundation.
Swanson said, “Awards Night is always a special evening for the school to recognize the accomplishments of our seniors. Students put in a great deal of effort and deserve public recognition for their work. The class of 2020 earned more than $550,000 in scholarship money, and I am happy we were able to share this with our community in a virtual ceremony.
“I am grateful to the district for fighting to have a face-to-face graduation. Even though there were limitations to the number of people who could attend, we were able to live stream the event, which we have never done before. I did miss some of our great traditions, but I feel the class of 2020 made some new ones.”
This year’s graduation ceremony featured a pre-recorded speech by class president Midajah Decker, who talked about the bittersweet ending to her senior year.
“If I would have known March 13 was our last day of being seniors at Amherst High School, I would have sat in my economics classroom just a little bit longer,” she said. “I would have walked down the halls a little slower instead of rushing to my car, and I would have said a proper goodbye to my favorite teachers. From what we knew, we were going to get an extra week of spring break.
“I saw sisters and friends graduate with a normal graduation, and I always dreamed of the day I would get to walk across the stage. Even though this isn’t what I pictured, I’m beyond thankful that we can still be here today, in our caps and gowns, having a chance to walk across the stage and receive our diplomas.”
Co-valedictorian Landry Kirsling also addressed the audience in a pre-recorded speech, reminding everyone of the challenges faced by the class of 2020.
“We were born during 9/11, and now here we are graduating during a pandemic,” she said. “However, we truly did manage to pull off the longest spring break and the most senior skip days all in the same year.”
Although this year’s graduation ceremony was quite different than those held in the past, it also started what many people hope will become a yearly tradition—an outdoor graduation ceremony held on Heartland Farms Field.
Richie said, “It was nice that graduation was held outside in our beautiful new football/soccer facility. In the future, we may continue to hold outdoor graduation ceremonies. I really missed the band and choir not participating, and the students didn’t actually get to stand on the stage to give their speeches. I also missed not shaking hands with all of the graduates.
“Overall the graduation ceremony went very well, and the weather definitely cooperated. When you plan an outdoor graduation, the weather will always be the biggest factor [in determining] if the graduation ceremony will be successful.”
A Special Surprise
During normal graduation ceremonies at AHS, the principal announces each student’s name and post-graduation intentions. The student walks across the stage and receives his or her diploma from a member of the school board. This time, graduation intentions were not announced because many students have had to change their post-grad plans due to the uncertainty of how university/tech-school classes and training programs might be altered in the coming months due to the progression of COVID-19. However, the students did receive their diplomas, and this time, there was something extra inside.
About five years ago, Whitetail Lanes took over the Amherst Coaches’ Club annual golf outing, held the last Saturday in July.
Each year, the proceeds from the golf outing are donated to a charity. In the past, the golfers have raised money for the Portage County K-9 Unit, various community members in need, and even the Jensen Center. Whitetail Lanes owner Steve Cieslewicz likes to pick a new cause to support each year, but this year was kind of tough, at first.
Cieslewicz talked to places like the Amherst Fire Department, the Lettie Jensen Public Library, and the Tomorrow River Area Community Kitchen (TRACK) about helping them fund their programs. But thanks to the wonderful generosity of our community, each of these places said they didn’t have a pressing need for funds. Then a casual conversation with Klieforth sparked Cieslewicz’s idea of doing something special for the class of 2020. He approached the school with his idea and received the green light.
This year’s golf outing raised enough money for Cieslewicz to purchase 73 $100 BP gas cards, which were inserted into each diploma holder. The proceeds from the golf outing fell just a little short of the $7,300 goal, so Cieslewicz made up the difference to ensure each senior received a gift card.
“I wanted to keep it local, so that’s why I bought them from the BP station,” Cieslewicz said. “And it was important to me to keep it a surprise, too. I wanted the seniors to find out about the gift cards at the ceremony.”
Klieforth made the announcement just before the diplomas were handed out, making sure the students knew to be careful with the holders…and to double-check that the gift card didn’t fall out. The announcement was met with surprise and then applause.
Since the ceremony, Cieslewicz has received thank-you cards from graduates. “I’ve also had several people stop by to say thanks, and not just graduates,” he added.