Verona High School celebrates graduation

Wednesday, May 9, 2018
Verona graduates beamed with smiles as they received applause from the crowd as they faced the audience and turned their tassels to indicate the completion of high school. Murray Bishoff/

More photos from Verona's graduation may be found at:

Class of 2018 urged to face change, relish small town roots

For the 20 graduates in the Class of 2018 at Verona High School, commencement exercises on Friday marked the close of their high school careers, completed with encouraging words from classmates and the faculty speaker.

Verona graduates, some with decorated hats, prepared for the distribution of flowers. Murray Bishoff/

Graduates, clad in caps and robes of purple and sashes in gold, entered the school gym one at a time, as the band played Elgar's first "Pomp and Circumstance" march under the direction of Michelle Riedel. Following the singing of the National Anthem by Bob Senninger and a welcome by Superintendent Tony Simmons, students distributed flowers to family and faculty members, as well as special friends in the audience.

Shelly Gatton, special education director and assistant high school principal who is retiring this year, was the first to address the assembly.

"Life is a journey, and only you can decide the destination," Gatton said.

She noted that graduates now face time to explore, discover and reboot, picking up the parts they like and reinventing the rest into the person they wish to become. No one, she continued, knows what they want to do for the rest of their lives. Her fifth-grade teacher had said Gatton would either have to "use your God-given talent to be a teacher or see a doctor about your constant talking."

Gatton came armed with a tool box packed with the armaments of future careers, such as welding rods, a spatula, a stethoscope, a boat for a Navy bound student, blueprints, sheet music, a game controller and a question mark, naming students for whom each item belonged.

Gatton observed no one knows what career they will follow at an early age. To prove it, she talked to the families of graduates about childhood ambitions, learning such chestnuts as Ivonne Lopez wanted to be a WWF wrestler, Destinee Reid wanted to be a ballerina and Jonathan Freiburger "wanted to drive choo-choo trains."

"Change is good," Gatton said. "It's normal. It's OK. For what it's worth, it's never too late or too early to be whoever you want to be. It's OK to change your mind, but never change your values. Be brave. Follow your heart. Follow your dreams."

In his address, Valedictorian Ben Stults said he felt he and his classmates were meant to be in Verona. He talked about how good they had it.

"Our teachers are passionate about what they do and are there for us," he said. "I wouldn't trade that for anything. Thank you, teachers and faculty, for caring about us enough to work at home and put up with our bad attitudes, complaining and procrastination."

Stults described the process of cutting and polishing a diamond, similar to growing up and working through school grades reaching a quality product, one that does not need perfection, as "imperfections make us unique." He cited the value of tight-knit relationships and the ease of blending into a small group, and the challenges ahead.

Salutatorian Jonathan Freiburger talked about the moment of being together as a class for the last time, and words of wisdom imparted by teachers.

Freiburger noted that a decade has not past since the Verona school opened that a member of his family has not graduated, and he was proud to leave his mark.

"This year's seniors have shown a remarkable amount of maturity and responsibility, and I believe we are well prepared for whatever the future has in store for us," Freiburger said. "It has been an honor to get to know each of you."

He concluded with a quote from professional wrestler Ric Flair, "Whether you like it, or you don't like it, we're the best class graduating today."

Carolyn Schasteen, high school counselor, announced the recipients of scholarships and introduced presenters from supporting organizations, who in turn named the winners. Schasteen said scholarships added up to more than $120,000, including universities and A+ benefits extended over the full life of the offers.

The following students received scholarships, announced during commencement exercises:

Ben Stults: First Independent Bank in Aurora, $1,000; Community Teachers Association (CTA), $300; Ethel King Scholarship, $2,500; Verona Alumni Scholarship, $1,000; Ozark Electric Scholarship, $250.

Rodrigo Salas: Ethel King Scholarship, $2,500; Excellence Scholarship from Missouri Southern State University, $5,200 total for four years.

Omar Alvarado: Mike Rowe scholarship from MTI, $3,000.

Rafael Zarraga: Mike Rowe scholarship from MTI, $3000; Verona Alumni Scholarship, $250; Ozark Electric Scholarship, $250.

Ivonne Lopez, Verona Alumni Scholarship, $750.

Destinee Reid: Verona Alumni Scholarship, $500; FFA Booster Club, $1,000; Dorton Scholarship, $1,000; FFA Blood Drive Scholarship, $250.

Kat Tarkington: FFA Booster Club, $1,000; FFA Blood Drive Scholarship, $250; Tillers and Toilers Garden Club, $400; MFA, $2,000.

Jonathan Freiburger: Miner and University Scholarship from MO S&T, $4,000; Community Teachers Association, $300.

Sergio Ortega: Community Teachers Association, $300.

Principal Terry Winton introduced each of the graduates, who received diplomas from Louis Carrasquillo, school board president. At Winton's direction, the class turned to face the audience and receive a round of applause as they turned their tassels, signifying graduation.

As the recessional sounded, graduates left their seats for the corner of the gym, where they ceremonially tossed their mortar board hats into the air at once. Then, a spontaneous reception developed, as families gathered for congratulations, photos and farewells.

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