Eighty years ago Mary Uhorchak, a reporter for the Echo, the Westmoreland school newspaper was the valedictorian of the graduating Class of 1940. Commencement was held on Monday, June 26 of that year. She gave a speech entitled, “The Seven Wonders of the Modern World.”
Only three days before Uhorchak, and 27 of their classmates were handed diplomas at the Clark Mills American Legion, Hitler paraded through the Arc de Triomphe. One day after their graduation, the Nazis would take control of France all the way to the Spanish border.
It must have taken a great deal of optimism to see wonder in June of 1940. There is a lesson in that.
I wish I knew what wonders Mary highlighted one year into the start of World War II and one-and-a-half-years before the attack on Pearl Harbor. The class motto was, “according to our preparation, so will be our opportunity.” Mary was smart and a writer. What matters is that she found the words to give her fellow graduates hope and optimism to buoy them as they prepared to face history head-on.
Thirty-nine years later, Lynne Coluccio Gaglianese graduated from Westmoreland Central School. Her advice to the Class of 2020 who are living through a time of unprecedented history is to start writing it down.
“Journal this time in history,” Gaglianese says. “Many years from now, it will be your life story. But years from now, you will want to share this and remember it. It’s unlike anyone else’s story.”
She says that she remembers few vivid details from the day she graduated in 1979.
“But I did graduate, and now so did you,” Gaglianese says. “Just in a totally different way. Be proud of that!”
Alan Holmes, another alumni, also remarked on the unprecedented nature of this year’s graduation.
“Though many of the traditional events and ceremonies that traditionally symbolize the end of your high school experience were not able to happen, you have actually been tested.”
He says, pointing out how the Class of 2020 has learned to overcome tremendous obstacles just to get to graduation.
“This is a lesson that is invaluable going forward in life,” Holmes added. “You are going to face many challenges that will test your resolve. It does not matter if you are going to go to college, trade school, the military, or starting your career. You will need to overcome challenges.”
He wishes all of the Class of 2020 the best and says that it is the ability to overcome challenges that will determine their success in life.
Gaglianese and Holmes were responding to a request I posted on Facebook asking alumni to share the wisdom they’ve acquired in the years since they graduated from Westmoreland Central School with this year’s graduates.
I had two people respond who were both from the Class of 1985, Dana Besig Carr, and Lisa Bottini Austin.
“Lots of emotions this year, I’m sure,” Austin said. “I am sorry you were unable to have a traditional graduation. However, you worked hard to get here and didn’t let anything stand in your way. Remember, you can do anything you set your mind to-just work through those bumps in the road.”
Carr added, “All I can say is be true to yourselves. You have nothing to prove to anyone but yourselves!”
“Stay true to yourself,” Austin agrees. “And always stay humble and kind!”
Jill Brock, who graduated in 1983, echoes their advice.
“Believe in yourself and take chances,” she says. “You never truly know whether you will succeed in something unless you allow yourself to try.”
“I have seen this country and the world evolve at an unprecedented pace,” John Creaser, class of 1979, observed.
He acknowledged that many of the Class of 2020 missed out on life experiences usually associated with the last year of high school and that they could feel aimless. Creaser says that by setting goals, they can feel like they are moving forward again.
“You have to be the pacesetter for your lives, not the world,” he explains. “It’s the difference between being the pilot or the passenger.”
Jason VanBenscoten graduated from Westmoreland in 2004 and went on to earn a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science from Utica College.
He says that success is not given, but rather it is earned, no matter what field a high school graduate decides to pursue.
“Do your part,” VanBenscoten urges. “Strive every day. Push as hard as you can because nothing in this life is given to you. You earn it. We have to do everything we can to push society forward. Strive for excellence in everything you do and advocate for the things you want to see in the world.”
He says that while that may entail forging their own path, it is okay as long as the end result is something that you are passionate about.
Cindy Fiorilli, Class of 1982, also encourages graduates to follow their passion and to be proud of their journey and accomplishments.
“Remember where you came from and honor all those who supported your success-parents, friends, teachers, and coaches,” she says. “You are graduating in an unprecedented time, and without the traditions that usually accompany high school graduation. But you also have new traditions and ways to celebrate this momentous occasion.”
“The bottom line,” VanBenscoten says, “is no matter what you do, do it with passion and integrity. If you do that, we can all live in a world that we want to see.”
He urges the Class of 2020 to go and make that world.
The class song for Westmoreland’s 1940 graduation was sung to the tune of “Red River Valley.” The second stanza says:
“After we’ve gone from dear old Westmoreland, and have started life’s pathway to climb. Then our thoughts will come back to us through the pages of time.”
This year’s graduation at Westmoreland Central School was very unlike that of 1940. Still, it drew raves from graduates and parents because it brought the Class of 2020 together outdoors in masks or social distance, there were speeches, songs, and videos, and it ended in fireworks.
If Uhorchak, the valedictorian of 1940, had been there, she would have been impressed with the live streaming and having the whole event recorded on a flash drive. Those are some of the “wonders of our modern world.”
The technology may have evolved, but commencement still has the same meaning. It’s the start of a new life and the end of 13 years of growing up together.
“Soak it all in for time really does fly,” Fiorilli says.
“I loved my time at Westmo and treasure those memories as I hope you do too.”
Ron Klopfanstein graduated from Westmoreland Central School in 1987. Like him at Facebook.com/BeMoreWestmo and follow him at Twitter.com/RonKlopfanstein