Officials from Newberg High School were prepared for rain, but it never came. Overcast skies hung above the white tents on Loran Douglas Field and the rolling hills of the Chehalem Valley – accented by the sun when it occasionally peeked through the clouds – served as the backdrop for an evening of joy and celebration.
Families and community members filed into the stands holding "Congrats Grad" balloons, cardboard cut-outs of graduates' faces and various displays of cultural pride and tradition. Complaints about the lack of available seating could be heard parallel to the sound of people running into old friends for the first time in a long time.
Finally, as the conversational buzz gave way to the high-pitched cheers of proud parents, the Newberg High School Class of 2019 strolled onto the field like a football team emerging from the locker room. Their walk was much slower and more organized, though, and they traded helmets for mortar boards adorned with flowers, album covers, rubber duckies or the logo of their future college.
As nearly 300 graduates took their seats in folded chairs, the choir Vocal Point sang the national anthem and provided a special performance afterward. NHS Principal Tami Erion then stepped up to the podium near the center of the field. She was flanked by officials from the high school and district, all of whom played a role in the lives of every student in attendance.
Erion acknowledged the support system of teachers, administrators and family members in the audience that helped the graduates get to this point.
"This is a great time for you to be reflective and thankful of those who supported you, but it's also a great time for you to reflect on how hard you worked, how much you've accomplished, how much you've learned and how much you've grown," Erion said. "Students and guests sitting among you tonight are district and state champions, full-ride scholarship recipients, mental health advocates, school board representatives, inventors, award-winning artists and musicians, a chief executive officer of a manufacturing business, a founder of a nonprofit organization and one of the youngest certified EMTs in the state of Oregon."
It was a star-studded class of graduates this year, including six valedictorians and one salutatorian, all seated in the front row on stage left. The valedictorians provided a short, inspirational speech to their classmates midway through the ceremony. They were preceded by Hugh Anderson – a beloved biology teacher who is retiring after 33 years at the high school.
Before he heads off for what Erion called a "three-month Hawaiian adventure," Anderson was chosen by students as this year's commencement speaker. His sense of humor and open-minded attitude made it clear why he was chosen, as he opened his speech with remarks about his selection being based on his charm and "rugged good looks."
His speech, however, focused on what it will take for Newberg students to maintain their success well into adulthood: leaving behind "footprints" on the lives of others.
"I think it's important, seniors, as you go forward, that you set the bar high," Anderson said. "By setting the bar high, you are holding yourself to an extremely high standard – a standard that requires you to bring your very best every single day. If you do this, people will notice."
Anderson expressed his hope that he left footprints in his students' lives and added they undoubtedly left them in his. In recent weeks, students left a poster on Anderson's car that said, "Teachers plant seeds that last a lifetime." Reflecting on that gesture made Anderson tear up.
But the majority of his speech was upbeat and built around the lessons to be taken from the people around these graduates in the community. In keeping with his theme of "setting the bar high," Anderson mentioned coaches like Neil Russo in wrestling, Jim McMaster in water polo and Lisa Berg in cheerleading as examples of what happens when the bar is set high. All are champions at either the state or national level with their respective teams.
"And it's not just athletics," Anderson said. "Many of you have left footprints in your church and in the community. I've had the honor of seeing many of the senior projects and they made Newberg a better place.
"After you walk across the stage tonight, seniors, and you have your diploma in hand, your footprints will change just a little bit," Anderson continued. "They will not be high school footprints anymore. Tomorrow, when you wake up, they will be the footprints of an adult and slowly the safety net of your parents and of high school will begin to fade away – as it should."
As his speech drew to a close, Anderson thanked graduates for teaching him such phrases as "yee yee," "dank" and "crunk," but he also took a moment to advocate on behalf of a generation that – in his view – gets a bad rap in many of the ways that his own generation did.
"Every generation seems to complain about the kids these days," Anderson said. "I hear these things all the time. 'Your generation doesn't work hard enough,' so on and so on. My parents' generation said the same thing about me and my peers.
"I've spent four years getting to know the senior class of 2019, and I am supremely confident that these seniors are going to go forward and be amazing young adults."
After Anderson left the stage to raucous applause, school board chairman Bob Woodruff and Superintendent Joe Morelock officially recognized the Class of 2019, and one-by-one they made their way across the stage, pausing for photos and drawing scattered cheers from different portions of the packed stands.
With the sun long set and final words from Vice Principal Tony Buckner sending them off with their tassels moved from right to left, graduates packed a fleet of school buses. A police escort guided them through downtown Newberg and on to Grad Night – the first of many adventures in the great unknown of adulthood.