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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, July 7, 2005


GHS graduates are urged to aim for the stars, to follow the rainbow, and to take the plunge

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — Fifty years after the first class of Guilderland High School graduated, the current class went out in style.

As senior Moira LaMountain read the 50-year roll call, she recognized one alumni whose granddaughter was graduating Sunday and another couple — Joseph Petrosino and Kathleen Painter Petrosino — of whom she said, "They actually met in high school ... so it’s cute."

The ranks of Guilderland graduates have swelled as the community has grown in the last half-century. Three score graduated in that first class in 1955 in a ceremony at the new school in Guilderland Center; 483 graduated last Sunday, June 26, at the Empire State Convention Center in Albany.

Charles Pergl, one of the 1955 graduates, who has since retired as an IBM engineer, recalled for The Enterprise what that first graduation was like.

The class was proud of the new school colors it had chosen — red and white, upgraded from the old Altamont High School colors of garnet and gray.

And the late Frank Elliott had suggested the school’s symbol — the Flying Dutchman, a spectral ship said to appear in storms near the Cape of Good Hope, captained by a legendary Dutch mariner condemned to sail the seas against the wind until Judgment Day.

The crowd began arriving early for the 8 p.m. Saturday ceremony on June 25, 1955.

People streamed through the new school’s front door, by the old school bell that symbolized the centralization of the district.

"It came from a one-room schoolhouse," said Pergl of the bell. "It was set on a stone monument with a plaque saying the names of all the schools. I went to Fullers....There were schools in Dunnsville and at Osborne Corners and one at the top of Willow Street."

"You turned left to get to the gymnasium," said Pergl. He described the then-grand 90-by-90-foot space, packed with supporters.

The ceremony began, as did this year’s, with the familiar strains of Edward Elgar’s "Pomp and Circumstance," followed by the national anthem.

Rev. Cornelius J. Meyer gave the invocation — a tradition dropped as schools became more multi-cultural and the Supreme Court ruled against it.

Rev. Sheldon E. MacKay gave the keynote address.

Awards were made — 14 in all with prizes ranging from $5 to $2, with most at $5. This year’s seniors had a separate awards ceremony where 80 awards were given, many with higher stipends.

Five honor students were recognized in 1955, fewer than a tenth of the class. This year, 250 students, over half of the graduates, were designated as honors, high honors, or highest honors graduates.

A valedictorian and salutatorian were named in 1955; Guilderland now recognizes all of its highest-honors students at graduation rather than naming two top scholars.

In 1955, salutatorian Carol Unright earned the PTA scholarship. And valedictorian Myrna Kent presented the class gift.

"We gifted them the scenery from the senior play," recalled Pergl with a chuckle. "We had burned it, and the audience didn’t realize we destroyed it. Myrna went on about the backdrop being left for future senior plays."

After the inside joke, diplomas were conferred and the graduates sang the Alma Mater, no longer heard at Guilderland graduations.

They sang to the tune of "O, Tannenbaum,": "O, Guilderland, dear Guilderland/ Beneath the stately Helderbergs/ We’re here to sing our praise to thee/ And ever loyal we shall be...."

"It was quite a day," concluded Pergl.

At this year’s graduation, the high school principal told the class of 2005. "Some of you will be here 50 years from now...in 2055."

"Be yourselves"

The ceremony started with the high school’s Wind Ensemble playing "Pomp and Circumstance" as a gauntlet of camera-wielding parents photographed the processional of seniors — the young men in caps and gowns of red, the young women in caps and gowns of white.

"I love you, honey," one woman called out to her son as he marched by. "Have you got a tissue"" she asked of no one in particular. Several were offered.

Christine Groat, who, with LaMountain, served as vice president of the class, led the Pledge of Allegiance and then the seniors of the Chamber Choir, under the direction of Rae Jean Teeter, sang the national anthem.

Principal Ismael Villafane presided over the ceremony, his final official duty as he is returning to Texas after two years at the helm in Guilderland.

"This graduating class has been tested," said Villafane, explaining he didn’t mean on standard exams. At the start of their first year in high school, 2001, they, like the rest of the nation, were shaken by the Sept. 11 terrorists’ attacks.

They have known two different principals, Villafane said, and they put in very hard years of work.

They arrived at high school as separate individuals, he said, and have come together as a group and been supportive of each other.

The most important advice he could give the graduates, Villafane said, is, "Be yourselves."

He then quoted the prizefighter Muhammad Ali: "I know where I’m going and I know the truth and I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be what I want."

Villafane told the students they may have come into the school scared but they are leaving as independent, thinking adults.

In closing, he quoted civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.: "Cowardice asks the question, ‘Is it safe"’ Expedience ask the question, ‘Is it politic"’ Veracity asks the question, ‘Is it popular"

"But conscience asks the question, ‘Is it right"’ And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because one’s conscience tells one that it is right."

"Celebrate the end product"

"Today is a momentous occasion...," Superintendent Gregory Aidala told the crowd. "The culmination of 13 years of schooling."

He went on to say, "There were many opportunities as well as hurdles our students had to overcome."

Aidala said he found the inspiration for his remarks on a community bulletin board; the unsigned posting was entitled "Be Alive": "Think freely, smile often, tell those that you love that you do...Hope, grow, give in, pick some daisies, share them...Reach out, let someone in...Hug a child...Trust life, have faith...Explore the unknown and celebrate life."

The superintendent told the students, "You are standing at the threshold of adulthood...You have met and, in most cases, far exceeded the requirements to earn a high school diploma."

He concluded by wishing the graduates true happiness and a sense of purpose in whatever they pursue.

Rollicking welcome

The superintendent’s address was followed by a lively welcome, performed in tandem, by the class’s co-presidents — Rosara Milstein and Matt Connelly.

Milstein said that one of her favorite books in elementary school was The Rainbow Fish. Marcus Pfister’s book tells the story of a fish who exchanges some of his rainbow scales for the sparkling scales he admires on other fish.

"Each can become more special and unique," said Milstein. She told those in the assembled crowd, "You have left us forever changed....You shared a part of yourselves."

Connelly got the first large laugh of the morning as he welcomed the parents and thanked them for, among other things, "forcing us out of bed."

In rapid-fire fashion, Milstein followed, thanking parents for "sitting through seemingly endless school concerts" and also for buying mini-vans when sports cars were the true desire.

Connelly added thanks for parents then rushing out in those mini-vans to pick up poster boards for a projects delayed till the last minute.

The crowd roared.

The pair of presidents went on to welcome siblings, friends, and teachers, too.

"We may never need to know about the emission spectrum of hydrogen...," said Milstein, but, she went on to assure the faculty, "You have taught us valuable social and life skills."

In welcoming administrators, Connelly pointed out that adolescence is an age of rebellion. "We challenged authority," he said, yet he credited the school administrators for making a warm and safe environment.

The pair concluded by welcoming their peers as Connelly quoted Winston Churchill, England’s prime minister during World War II: "You know you will never get to the end of the journey. But this, so far from discouraging, only adds to the joy and glory of the climb."

Somewhere over the rainbow

Elizabeth Picker, who starred in many school productions, gave the Graduate Address, using the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz as an extended metaphor, lacing the characters, plot, and even the E.Y. Harburg lyrics into her speech.

Since Guilderland does not recognize a valedictorian or salutatorian, speakers are chosen on the basis of submitted speeches.

"Dorothy steps into a world of brilliant Technicolor," Picker said, likening the L. Frank Baum heroine to the graduates before her.

"We temporarily luxuriate in a calm place," Picker said, although soon, she cautioned, the graduates will part with their best friends and favorite teachers.

"There have been problems in our lives...and none of them have stopped us," she said. "Unlike Dorothy...our somewhere over the rainbows are a reality...beyond the New York State Thruway."

Picker told the seniors that they all have goals and dreams and that, unlike Dorothy, who became a hero by mistake, the Guilderland graduates can consciously choose to make the world a better place.

"We are a very special group of people coming from a very unique school," said Picker. The graduates, she said, should help both the people they love and the people they barely know to their Oz-es.

She also said they should expect their beliefs to be challenged and that, at times, they might feel alone, or they might feel like they need to return to Kansas — Dorothy’s home and safe haven. But, Picker said, the graduates will find they have the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, and the Lion in their hearts.

"We should steer clear of fields of poppies," she said, which would have the graduates just sitting on their couches.

Like the Cowardly Lion, she said, the graduates need to learn what makes them strong; like the Scarecrow, what makes them burn; and like the Tin Man, what makes them get stuck.

"We always have heart, brains, courage, and a metaphorical home...We should be continually open to learning more about ourselves and other people," she said, stating all in the class were capable of tremendous things.

Picker concluded grandly, "Class of 2005, travel on your path over the rainbow with kindness and confidence because, if you do, ‘the dreams that you dare to dream really will come true.’"

"Jump in,

Class of 2005"

The Guilderland High School Choir Seniors then performed "For Good" by Stephen Schwartz.

"Because I knew you," they sang, "I have been changed for good."

The audience clapped loud and long when the choir finished singing.

"Another great performance by the Senior Choir — the last they’ll be singing together," said Principal Villafane, which led to more sustained and enthusiastic applause.

Bridget McNulty, delivering the Class Message, started by sounding a note of reality.

"There are 483 people in our graduating class," she said, which means one classmate could run into another on the street and not know him.

"We grew up together," said McNulty. "How did we create this community of super friends and enemies""

She looked for links, beginning with the fact the classmates live in the same town, but decided that wasn’t particularly important; the same with having all been required to take the same Regents exams.

McNulty got lots of cheers when she listed "our message on the water tower" as common ground. She joked that they were words that would live eternally, or at least until the next class paints them over.

"‘Seniors ’05 — Who’s yo’ Daddy"’: I think we can do better than that," said McNulty.

A male voice called out from the crowd: "Check it out — who’s yo’ Daddy""

Unperturbed, McNulty started her jaunt down memory lane for the class, beginning with elementary school and "protection against cooties."

In elementary school, she said, "Every little kid can sing...Every little kid can draw."

But then, in middle school, McNulty said, lowering her voice ominously to repeat the phrases she heard at Farnsworth Middle School, "‘I’m tone deaf’...’I can’t draw a straight line.’"

Middle school, said McNulty, is best described in one word — awkward.

To ripples of laughter, McNulty remembered "our sad attempts at seeming grownup, our eye shadow..."

She said that she and her classmates had learned the pain of unrequited love and the dramatic metaphor. She gave a lavish example, involving a surgically removed heart as the ripples of laughter skittering across the hall turned to gales.

"High school," she said, "is hard. It was for our parents; it was for us; it will be for our children."

But, McNulty said, the Class of 2005 was faced with a particularly difficult entry to high school. The fourth day of freshman year, Sept. 11, the terrorists struck.

"Suddenly, the whole world was a scary and unpredictable place," said McNulty.

The class adjusted, she said.

McNulty closed with a vivid comparison. She described where her class is now as being like diving off the board at the Tawasentha Park pool for the first time.

"You hesitate...squinting towards the bottom...Eventually, you jump...You resurface and you know you’ve done it," said McNulty.

Soon, she said, she and her classmates will be in the water and freezing, said McNulty. But, in a few more weeks, she said, "We’ll adjust."

She concluded, "Jump in, Class of 2005!"

Her speech was followed by the Guilderland High School Wind Ensemble, under the direction of Kathleen Ehlinger, playing Steve Reinke’s "Celebration Fanfare."

"Wings to fly"

Christine Meglino, one of two class treasurers, introduced the keynote speaker, Shirley Ann Jackson, who has been president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy since 1999. A sometimes controversial figure, she has a goal of making RPI a world-class institute.

Meglino recited a long list of Jackson’s accomplishments and described her as "an outstanding individual who enthusiastically agreed to speak."

"You have worked so hard to make this day possible," Jackson told the crowd. "I would like to applaud you and ask you to applaud yourselves."

The crowd obliged, with vigor.

Jackson told the graduates that they will embark on a journey of self-discovery and encounter a wider world.

Referring, as the principal and class speaker had to the terrorists’ attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Jackson said, "You have witnessed a change in the world, a shift."

That day, she said, turned the world upside down. Since then, Jackson said, America has faced terrorism, war, an AIDS pandemic, and debates over science and popular culture.

"Every day, the news brings fresh evidence our nation is in danger of losing its competitive edge," said Jackson adding, though, that this is also a time of great hope. She spoke about recent technical advances and told the graduates, "This is the world into which we are launching you today...

"How will you change it for the better"" she challenged them, advising that, first, they must embrace it, unafraid.

Jackson read the crowd a passage from Sue Monk Kidd’s novel The Secret Life of Bees. Set in the racially-charged South of the 1960’s, the novel is a coming-of-age tale about 14-year-old Lily Owens’s search for her mother.

"Lily’s room is filled with bees at night," said Jackson. The girl captures some in a jar to show her father. Two days later, she removes the lid.

"You can go," she says. But the bees remained there as if the world had shrunk.

"Those crazy bees stayed put," reports Lily.

"It did not take the bees long to accept confinement," said Jackson. They remained trapped, even when set free, she said, because they were conditioned.

"Like the open jar...," Jackson told the graduates, "many barriers impede us merely because we permit ourselves to be contained...

"The jar is wide open. There are no limits," she told the hundreds of young men and young women seated before her. "Your education and faith placed in you from family and friends give you the wings to fly," she said.

Jackson said she got her own wings from her parents. Her mother is now 90 years old, and her father died a number of years ago, she said.

Her father could not attend college, she said, because his own father died when he was in his early teens. Her father went to work when he was 14 years old and worked multiple jobs at the same time so his children could live a different life, she said.

With passion in her voice, Jackson shared with the Guilderland seniors the advice her father had given her: "Aim for the stars so you will reach the treetops and, at any rate, will get off the ground."

Jackson said that her parents also believed it was important to help others along the way.

"I share my father’s advice with you because I believe so strongly you have the power to overcome barriers in your life or in your mind," said Jackson.

She said she had woven her father’s advice into her life with three basic strands — excellence, leadership, and community.

Of excellence, she said, when you do things well, it becomes a habit. She quoted the former secretary of state, Colin Powell: "If you are going to achieve excellence in big things, you develop the habit in little matters. Excellence is not an exception; it is a prevailing attitude."

On leadership, Jackson said that each of us can be a leader.

"Think of those who inspired you...They are leaders," she told the graduates.

Leadership takes perseverance, she said, and requires time and effort.

On community, she said that Guilderland High School is one to which the students had belonged and now they would enter others.

She also said that never before has it been so imperative that we work towards a global community.

There is community of the mind, community of spirit, and community of caring and kindness, Jackson said.

Quoting basketball great Bill Russell, she said, "Every act of kindness is an act of strength."

Jackson concluded by talking about exploration, with a local focus. In 1609, Henry Hudson explored the river that came to bear his name.

"Henry Hudson had no idea where the river would lead," said Jackson. "He was in search of a passage to the Pacific Ocean. He did encounter...the future Albany County."

The name Guilderland, she noted, hearkens back to the Dutch province of Gelderland.

Jackson told the graduates that, like Hudson, they are embarking on a journey. "The future is your terra incognita," she said. "The most important discoveries are the ones you’ll make about yourself."

She concluded, "Whatever you do in life, remember kindness, do not lose confidence in yourself, and do not give up...I wish you a future in which your dreams fly out of the jar and you can soar."

When the applause subsided, the moment of graduation was at hand.

One by one, the seniors mounted the stage as their names were called. Each received a handshake, a diploma, and a carnation. They watched a video, "Fond Memories" before marching out to the strains of "Aida" and in to the warm embrace of family and friends.


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